With Washington underachieving, UCLA struggling and Arizona in the midst of a transition season, the rest of the Pac-12 has a golden opportunity to take advantage of the mediocrity among the league's bellwether programs.
One of the teams that has done that so far has been Colorado.
The Buffaloes (11-4, 3-0) are the Pac-12's lone undefeated team in conference play, having throttled Utah, Washington and Washington State. Granted all three of those games were in Boulder and only the Huskies are even remotely good this season, but that still is an encouraging start for a Colorado program picked 11th in the Pac-12 preseason poll after losing four of its five top scorers from last season.
Up next for the Buffaloes is a litmus test of a road trip against Cal and Stanford, both of whom are 3-1 in Pac-12 play and have lost a combined once at home this season. Colorado coach Tad Boyle spoke with me Tuesday morning about where his team has improved, how the move to the Pac-12 has benefited the program and the challenges that await the Buffaloes in the Bay Area.
JE: You guys were fortunate enough to get three home games to start conference play. How important was it for you guys to take advantage of that?
TB: When you get off to a good start in league play, it really helps your confidence, especially with the amount of young players we have. So I think it's a good thing. The schedule obviously favored us and we have to take that into account. And also I think our veterans understand we started 3-0 in the Big 12 last year and then we hit a big lull after that. We have to make sure we don't have those extended losing streaks. That's what hurts you in conference play. We were able to regroup, but I want to take advantage of this 3-0 start and get some wins on the road.
JE: You struggled in non-conference play even in December, losing to Wyoming and barely getting by Cal State Bakersfield and Texas Southern. Where has the team improved since then?
TB: Our team has really taken to heart the thing our coaching staff has preached since we were hired: We've got to defend and rebound. I've seen our team slowly get better. In field goal percentage defense, we're No. 1 in the league and we're second in the league in rebounding margin. Those are the two defensive stats we look at and our goal is to be in the top three in the league in both of those. Well, we're No. 1 in one and No. 2 in the other, so we've got to maintain that.
JE: I know Utah isn't having a good season, but how much does it benefit you that the Utes are your travel partner just because it's the longest road trip for most Pac-12 teams and both games are at altitude?
TB: The good thing is our travel partner is Utah because it's a tough trip logistically and we're both playing at altitude. Where your travel partner can really help you is when you're both on the road. I think Utah is playing a heck of a lot better than even when they came here two weeks ago to play us. So hopefully they can regroup and take the wind out some people's sails.
JE: Carlon Brown had 18 points against Washington and 28 against Washington State. Is that a week he can build on as conference play continues?
TB: I sure hope so. He's shooting the ball extremely well, he's playing with a lot of confidence and he's playing with poise. I think the biggest thing Carlon is not trying to do too much. The game has slowed down for him. Early, I thought he was pressing a little bit, but he's playing with poise and maturity now. Obviously he's a very talented player. We knew that when we recruited him. But it was a big week for him.
JE: Carlon had to sit out a year after transferring from Utah. Where did he improve during that time and how much did it benefit him practicing against guards the caliber of the guys you had last year?
TB: We had Cory Higgins and Alec Burks, and the ability to go against those two high-level players in practice really pushed Carlon and I think he helped push them too. I think it was just a great fit. As hard as it is for a player to sit out and practice but not play, he had an opportunity to come to the gym every day and play against two pretty talented wings and compete. I think it helped him.
JE: Carlon's high school coach, Tim Sweeney, told me earlier this season that he thought Carlon has NBA potential. Do you see that and where does Carlon need to improve to get to that level?
TB: I hope so. He's got the ability to score the ball. I think his ball handling has to get better, especially with his left hand. The thing that Carlon has, much like Cory had and Alec had, is he has the ability to make plays for himself and his teammates. His ball handling needs to get better, but he has great size, he can guard and I'll tell you what Carlon is, he's a great low-post player. We try to get him there as much as possible in our motion offense.
JE: Spencer Dinwiddie is a freshman who is your third leading scorer already. Did you expect him to be a key contributor so quickly?
TB: We were expecting it, yeah. When we recruited him, we told him he was going to have an opportunity to step in and make an impact right away. You never know how it's going to happen, but I will say with Spencer we expected it. We recruited him hard with the idea that this was what we were losing. We had Carlon sitting out and Nate Tomlinson's a senior but other than that the ball was going to be in his hands. Obviously it appealed to him, and he's a guy who hopefully we can build around.
JE: With Spencer thriving for you guys right now and a talented kid like Xavier Johnson on his way next season, you've had success recruiting Southern California. Is that an example of where the move to the Pac-12 has benefited the program?
TB: Absolutely. I think we also did a great job with Askia Booker. He's a guy who can make a lot of baskets as he continues to grow and develop. He's so explosive. He's our sixth man right now coming off the bench. He's a guy that wasn't recruited by any Pac-10 schools, but we pulled the trigger on him. Sometimes you have to out-recruit people. Sometimes you have to out-evaluate them. Hopefully we can do a little bit of both as we continue forward.
JE: Maybe you wouldn't agree, but I would think this would be viewed as a transition year for you guys with as much as you lost last season. Big picture-wise, do you like the position the program is in being able to be competitive this season and having so many young players?
TB: I like where our program is today. It is a transition year for us just because of what we lost. When you lose 75 percent of your scoring, I don't care who you are. It's going to be a transition year. You're going to need some of your newcomers to step up like Spencer has, like Askia has, like Carlon has. With the five guys we have coming in next year, we're going to be very young next year. We'll have one senior on the roster and he'll be a non-scholarship player. Youth will be prevalent on our roster but it will be very talented youth.
JE: I had a chance to see you guys in person last year during the NIT and the crowd support really impressed me. How pleased are you that the enthusiasm for Colorado basketball seems to have carried over into this season?
TB: We've always got room for improvement. Our arena seats 11,000. What I tell people around here is that until those 11,000 seats are sold out for every home game, we've got work to do. With that said, we've had tremendous energy with the crowds we've had. It's a great atmosphere, and you add the atmosphere with the altitude and we've got a recipe for one of the best home-court advantages in the Pac-12. I don't think we're there right now, but we can get there.
JE: I look at this week as a litmus test for you guys just because you're going on the road for the first time in league play and it's against two of the better teams in the conference. Do you view it the same way?
TB: It's a big one. I said after the Utah game that the Washington game at home would be a litmus test for our program. I know Washington has struggled on the road, but the bottom line is that program under Lorenzo Romar has been to six NCAA tournaments in 10 years, a couple Sweet 16s. They've got really talented players. That was a great test for us and we passed it. Now this road test, I think arguably Cal and Stanford may be the toughest road trip in the Pac-12 when you put both of them together. It's a heck of a test for our guys to find out whether we can continue this success on the road.