September 27, 2010
As soon as he learned his school was hiring Tad Boyle as its new basketball coach last April, high-scoring Colorado guard Alec Burks was almost certain he'd donned a Buffaloes jersey for the final time.
It shocked Burks when Colorado coach Jeff Bzdelik bolted for Wake Forest earlier that month without completing the rebuilding process he'd begun in Boulder. It stung Burks even more when school officials ignored his pleas to hire Bzdelik's popular lead assistant Steve McClain and plucked Boyle from Northern Colorado instead.
"I was 80 percent gone," the Big 12's reigning freshman of the year recalled last week. "I was hurt that they would not choose Coach McClain and I thought I should go somewhere that they treat people better, but I talked to my mom and she said I shouldn't make the decision in a rush. Then I talked to Coach Boyle a couple times and he went and visited my mom and eventually I realized I was making the right decision by staying."
Boyle's ability to earn the trust of Burks and his mother ensures that the incremental progress Colorado made during Bzdelik's three-year tenure will not be wasted. The one-two punch of Burks and fellow guard Cory Higgins propelled last year's Buffaloes to six conference victories and a memorable overtime loss against top-ranked Kansas, raising hopes that this will be the season the perennial doormats to break an eight-year NCAA tournament drought.
Asked whether he thought Colorado had improved enough during the offseason for an NCAA tournament berth to be a reasonable goal, Burks responded simply and directly, "I feel like this year, it's NCAA or bust." A more cautious Boyle called it "premature" to project that level of success for a team that finished last in the Big 12 in defense and rebounding last season, yet he appreciated Burks' confidence and enthusiasm.
For Colorado to have any hope of achieving that goal next season, Boyle knew he needed to keep last year's nucleus together despite the unrest created by the sudden coaching shakeup. Burks, in particular, had been vocal in his support for Bzdelik's former staff, telling the Boulder Daily Camera he'd remain at Colorado if McClain received the head coaching gig but explore his options if school officials opted for an outside candidate.
Aware that his best player's commitment to the program was wavering, Boyle made re-recruiting Burks a top priority as soon as the Colorado job officially became his. He met with Burks several times and even flew to Grandview, Mo. to visit his mother, laying out his vision for the program and urging both not to turn their backs on Colorado.
"He was one of the ones that was most outspoken about not being sure what his next step was going to be, so I wanted to make sure that he knew how important he was to this program," Boyle said. "The one thing I tried to appeal to was his sense of loyalty to the institution and most importantly to his teammates. He didn't know me from Adam, but I think Alec realized that if left, it would have let his teammates down."
It's easy to see why Burks would be so attached to Bzdelik and his staff because they took a chance on him when other coaches wouldn't.
A late-blooming prospect who benefited from an unexpected four-inch growth spurt that gave him the frame of a wing and the quickness of a point guard, the 6-foot-6 Burks caught Bzdelik's eye at camp in Kansas the summer before his senior year. There were two gyms at the camp and Bzdelik went to the one without air conditioning because less of his peers were there, a decision that helped him spot Burks before other coaches.
Burks rewarded Bzdelik's faith with a breakout senior season, earning state player of the year honors in Missouri after averaging 23 points per game and leading Grandview High to the state championship game. He then averaged 17.1 points and a team-high 5.0 rebounds per game as a freshman at Colorado, more than enough to make the rest of the Big 12 regret not offering him a scholarship.
"Being overlooked was motivation for me," Burks said. "I had a chip on my shoulder all year, and that's the way I played. I showed everybody what they missed. I felt disrespected, so I had to show people what I was about."
Burks' length, athleticism and instincts impressed pro scouts enough that NBADraft.net projects him to be selected No. 8 in the 2011 draft. That's a surreal place to be for a kid who received scarcely any attention from college coaches until his senior year of high school.
"It's unreal," Burks said. "Two years ago nobody knew my name and I was just an average person. Now they're talking about me in the NBA. It's crazy how much life can change in a couple years."
The relationship between Burks and Boyle naturally isn't as strong as it was with Bzelik just yet because they haven't spent as much time together, but preliminary signs suggest it may get there one day. The humility Burks has displayed despite all the newfound attention has impressed Boyle, as has his star player's work ethic and willingness to take direction.
If Boyle's request of Burks in April was to give him a chance, he asked for a little more when the sophomore guard returned for the start of classes a few weeks ago.
"I told him, 'Hopefully I've gained a little bit of your trust, so now you've got to let me coach you,'" Boyle said. "The one thing you don't want to do is coach a guy and feel like you're walking on eggshells and he hasn't made me feel like that at all. Alec's a joy to coach, I'm glad he's on our team and I think our relationship gets better every day."