Pat Rooney: CU Buffs 3 extra points (March 25, 2024)

Mar. 25—BuffZone writer Pat Rooney discusses three topics surrounding CU Buffs basketball as the women advance to their second consecutive Sweet 16 while the men take stock of a memorable season that ended in the NCAA Tournament second round.

Righting the ship

This was my ninth season covering CU Buffs men's basketball, and I've come to accept the Fire Tad crowd as a vocal minority. It was a particularly boisterous minority in the early stages of February, and understandably so. At that point, it was shaping up to be a disappointing season.

In the end, however, this was one of Tad Boyle's most impressive seasons at CU.

Close your eyes and wipe the name "Colorado" off the mental slate for a moment and picture this. A nameless college basketball team that sets its program record for wins, in this case 26. That team finishes third in its conference, reaches its conference title game, and wins two games in the NCAA Tournament. Then take note of how that team played just 14 of its 37 games with all seven of its top seven players available. In a few of those 14, the injured guys were gutting it out at less than 100%.

Oh, and this blind resume team set records individually (KJ Simpson's 1,298 minutes and .876 free throw percentage) and collectively (besides the 26 wins, a .391 3-point percentage).

It's a commendable coaching job any way you cut it. And player development? We didn't get the full measure of the talents of freshman Cody Williams due to his litany of injuries. But every one of those other top rotation players — Simpson, Tristan da Silva, J'Vonne Hadley, Eddie Lampkin Jr., Luke O'Brien and even Julian Hammond III, before back and knee issues bogged him down — were markedly improved players from the ones who walked off the floor at the end of the 2022-23 season.

It wasn't a perfect season. And yeah, maybe this team could've had a higher ceiling if not for the personnel matters. But it still will be remembered as one of Boyle's best CU teams, and none of the others in that debate overcame as much in-season adversity as this one.

Historic run

Friday's back-to-back NCAA Tournament games for the men and women marked the first time both programs played tournament games on the same day. They did it again on Sunday.

While the back-to-back games probably were wonderful for the sports bars, for me it was tough to watch much of the women's wins. But, like Boyle, kudos to coach JR Payne and her staff for keeping the Buffs focused on the big picture.

The adversity certainly was different for the women, who were among the top teams in the nation all season and didn't have to stress over a tourney berth. Personally, however, I found the late 2-6 slide alarming. If I whittled it down, it was after the loss against a beat-up Washington State team at home in the regular season finale that made it easy to wonder of the club was up for another extended postseason run.

Maybe that loss was a catalyst. While the Buffs were eliminated in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, the team looked much more like its early-and-mid-season self in Las Vegas. And the rugged road slate in the Pac-12, combined with earning last year's Sweet 16 berth on the road at Duke, made the Buffs well-equipped to handle the crowd on Sunday at Kansas State.

The big domino

I'll dive more into what's next for the men's program in the coming days and weeks. But the biggest spring storyline for Buffs fans to follow is the fate of Simpson.

With Williams likely bound for the NBA draft, Simpson's decision will dictate the direction of the Buffs' offseason. Simpson is all but certain to at least test his NBA draft prospects this spring while keeping open the option of returning for his senior season. Obviously he has all the skills. He improved drastically in the areas he needed to improve the most (3-point percentage and assist-to-turnover rate), and Simpson has to be on the shortlist of the best second-half finishers in all of college basketball this season.

If Simpson returns, the returning core of Simpson, Hadley and Lampkin is a good starting point for the return season in the Big 12. If he doesn't, Boyle and his staff will likely need to find experienced backcourt help in the transfer portal.