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What is the ceiling for Colorado men’s basketball? 

Allow me to set the stage …

The Colorado men’s basketball team has posted a 20-win season, a campaign which, historically, counts as a rarity for the program.

The Buffs are not good enough for an NCAA tournament bid, but are good enough to earn a first-round home game in the National Invitational Tournament.

The opponent for the first round NIT game? A decent program from a mid-major conference … dangerous, but beatable.

With the aid of a raucous crowd of 6,299 on hand, the Buffs take care of business, advancing to the NIT second round with a hard fought victory.

Wait … raucous crowd of 6,299?

What, you thought I was talking about the 2018-19 CU Buffs? A team which posted a 21-12 record, not good enough for the NCAA’s, but good enough for the NIT? A team which posted just the 10th 20-win season in CU history?

No, the above describes the 2010-11 CU Buffs, a team which had a 21-13 record that proved insufficient for an NCAA invitation, but instead merited a home game in the NIT against Texas Southern.

The difference between the 2010-11 team and the 2018-19 team isn’t the records (21-12 v. 21-13) or the venue (the Coors Events Center v. the CU Events Center).

The difference between the first round NIT game against Dayton this past week and the first round NIT game against Texas Southern (the last time CU hosted a first round NIT game) was the size of the crowd (6,299 for the Texas Southern game v. 3,091 for the Dayton game) … and the expectations.

Yes, the Dayton game was a late-night (9:00 p.m.) tip-off on a weeknight, but the Texas Southern game was also played on a weeknight (a Wednesday), but attracted twice as many CU fans.

The main reason?

Expectations.

In 2010-11, Tad Boyle’s first season in Boulder, the Buffs were a big deal. After three unproductive years under Jeff Bzdelik (36-48), and only one winning season in the past seven, a 20-win campaign in Tad Boyle’s first year was cause for celebration. In making it to the finals of the Big 12 tournament, Buff fans thought that CU was going to earn just its third NCAA bid since 1969 … and its first since 2003.

Instead, CU was relegated to the NIT.

Despite the disappointment of not being chosen for The Big Dance, the Buffs and their fans were undeterred.

As noted, 6,299 showed up for the first round game against Texas Southern. The second round game, an 89-72 win over Cal, brought in 7,614 paid attendees. The quarterfinals, an 81-74 win over Kent State? A crowd of 9,065 showed up at The Keg.

Anyone want to bet their lunch money that 7,600 will show up on Monday night for CU’s second round game against Norfolk State?

Thought not.

So … the venue is the same, the CU records are almost identical … but no one is coming to watch the 2018-19 Buffs make their run at getting to Madison Square Garden.

What’s the difference?

The bar has clearly been raised for CU men’s basketball.

What was once considered the ceiling for the program – 20 wins and post-season participation – is now considered the floor.

Tad Boyle has posted six of CU’s ten all-time 20-win seasons. The Buffs have been to the post-season in eight of Boyle’s nine years in Boulder. Under Boyle, CU has been to the NCAA tournament four times. Prior to Boyle’s arrival, if you want to count up four NCAA appearances for the program, you have count back to 1963.

That’s not a misprint:

  • Under Tad Boyle, four NCAA appearances in nine years
  • Before Boyle, four NCAA bids … in 49 years.

Tad Boyle, for better or worse, is a victim of his own success.

The lack of attendance at the Dayton game, and indeed the drop in overall attendance the past few seasons, is in large part attributable to the fact that merely posting a winning record – a goal for most Buff teams over the past 50 years – is now a starting point. Competing for an NCAA invitation is not a pipe dream – it is now an expectation.

This year’s team has 22 wins, tied for the fourth-most in CU history (Boyle teams have posted two 24-win and one 23-win seasons), and every player on the court for the Dayton game will be back for the 2019-2020 season, with other contributors (like the return of injured center Dallas Walton) giving some Buff fans reason to say that it’s “Big Dance or bust” for Tad Boyle.

I would agree that the NCAA tournament is a realistic expectation for the Buffs next season. The current roster has 22 wins (and counting) should only be better. And it doesn’t hurt that there is a power vacuum in the Pac-12 of late. UCLA is looking for a new head coach this off-season, and Arizona may soon be looking for a new head coach as well.

The Pac-12 is there for the taking.

I would not agree, however, that Tad Boyle’s job is in jeopardy if the Buffs do not make the NCAA tournament next spring.

Can CU’s recruiting be better? Sure.

Are Tad Boyle’s substitution patterns, particularly early in the game, often frustrating? No argument.

Could non-conference scheduling – and performance – be improved? Definitely.

But should Tad Boyle be considered as being anywhere close to a “hot seat”? Definitely not.

If you look at the CU program under Tad Boyle, using any metric you wish to apply – 20-win seasons; winning percentage; conference winning percentage; NBA prospects generated; post-season appearances; post-season wins – it’s difficult not to conclude, as frustrating as it may be at times, that this is the “Golden Age of Colorado Basketball”.

So, if 20 wins and a post-season berth are the new floor for the CU men’s basketball program, what is the ceiling?

The easy, flippant response would be “national championship”, which is, of course, the goal of all 351 NCAA basketball programs.

Perhaps, but a national championship is not a super realistic expectation.

That doesn’t mean that CU might not one day catch lightning in a bottle, with perhaps a local phenom (like a Chauncey Billups) deciding to play for his home state program, combined with just the right combination of talent and heart to carry a team to the Final Four.

But … let’s be realistic.

While Colorado is a top 25 all-time program in football, the same cannot be said of CU basketball.

As of today, CU’s all-time record is 1316-1209 (.521). Not bad, I guess – at least the Buffs are over .500 all-time.

But here is some perspective.

Even if CU went 300-0 over the next ten seasons, and no team above them on the all-time wins list nationally won a single game … CU would still not be in the top 50 in the nation in wins.

Yup.

The Buffs are over 300 wins shy of even being in the top 50 in all-time wins.

Yikes.

So, what are some realistic goals?

  • A top four finish – and a bye in the Pac-12 tournament – should be a new standard. The Buffs under Tad Boyle have finished in ties for third and fourth in conference play, but have never been higher than a No. 5 seed in the conference tournament. CU in 2012, and Oregon this year, have won the Pac-12 tournament by winning four straight tournament games … but it is not the best way to earn a Pac-12 title;
  • Better play in the non-conference schedule is a must. Tad Boyle – from what was reported – made every effort to spice up the non-conference home slate of games this past off-season, but to no avail. That being said, you still have to win the games you do have on the schedule. Non-conference losses to San Diego, Indiana State and Hawai’i doomed CU’s NCAA chances before conference play even began.
  • Quit with the slow starts in Pac-12 play. Boyle has a legitimate beef that the Buffs always seem to have five road games in their first seven Pac-12 games … but you still have to play these teams, and you need to beat them in order to get into the NCAA conversation.
  • Once you get to the NCAA’s, don’t be satisfied to just get there. A Sweet Sixteen every once in awhile is a reasonable goal for the CU program.

“People have no idea,” said Boyle, whose Buffs have won 11 of their last 14 and reached the semis of the Pac-12 tourney. “It is difficult to get in that field of 68. Coaches understand that. I don’t know if fans do all the time.”

We do, but now the goal is not only making the Big Dance, but making some noise once the Buffs get their invitation.

“We are young,” said Boyle after they Dayton game, noting that 71 of CU’s 78 points in the 78-73 win over the Flyers came from freshmen and sophomores. “And I’m telling you, we’re going to be in the NCAA Tournament next year.”

So let it be written.

So let it be done.

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8 Replies to “What is the Ceiling for CU men’s basketball?”

  1. Honestly believe CU needs to follow in the footsteps of ASU, Mich. St, and others by making a concerted effort to establish a significant student presence. The “C Unit” of a few years ago was a nice attempt, but it’s obviously fizzled out. If the school establishes that student excitement and school spirit on a consistent basis. Going to a game with an rowdy student section improves the atmosphere for everyone and will be a draw for the casual basketball fan to attend CU games. Excited student crowds = better recruiting = better teams & more wins = bigger crowds = more revenue! Not worried about Tad. Get him more support and watch him go!!

  2. Depth and development. Hopeful that Walton can overcome what has been a chronic ACL problem that has plagued him from high school. The intrigue on film of the Czech RS FR. Dombek, where he was obviously a big fish in a small pond. Schwartz’ and his improving play–picking up where he left off. Kountz and Battey and the flash they showed at times down the stretch. Gatling catching up to the D-1 game. And of course Wright and Bey being hungry and unsatisfied and ready to anchor things. The potential is there and now it will be up to the coaches and players. We shall see.

  3. This program simply does not have the talent to compete with the big boys. Having raw athletes is nice but we need players with basketball skills, particularly shooters. It would be nice if we had someone taller than 5’11” that could drive past a defender as well. That would immensely help the offense.

  4. Im still bitter that Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL. That was the team that was going to be maybe the best in CU history. If he stays healthy we are a top 25 team throughout the year, and likely wouldve been in the sweet 16, and once you are there anything can happen. That was such an opportunity, but the one player we couldnt afford to lose got hurt. Gah that one hurt.

  5. Nice article. Nothing Tad can do about the PAC-12 being down except pull a Washington this year and take advantage of it. Regarding non-conference games, does Tad swallow some pride and agree to a 2 for 1 home series with a team like his old pal Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats? In the past, Tad said he wouldn’t denigrate his program by doing 2 for 1’s. However, if no one wants to play Tad in Boulder that may be the only way to beef up the schedule and spark some fan interest in the program again (other than the 6-7k regulars) since we are not a basketball powerhouse (and loading up on Mountain West schools will not do it). Also, why can’t the PAC-12 get into one of those challenges with another Power-5 like the ACC/Big-10 challenge?

    On a side note, when did CU start having a bowling team? I would love a CU bowling shirt to wear on the beach here in sunny Florida…

  6. As a famous basketball player once said:

    “THE CEILING IS THE ROOF”

    Yup it’s all about next year and the year after. Same team plus additions both years.

    Mein Gott is that really true.

    One could say that the Coaching of Tad will now be truly tested. Can he lead the talented and now experienced Mighty Buffs to the NCAA? His job to make sure they don’t lose those non-con games. His job to make sure they don’t start out slow in the Pac.

    What could go wrong?

    Buffs

    1. That is surely the test for next year. There will be no excuse for this team to get off to the slow start that we have seen lately, even if they are again schedule challenged with more front end road games. This will be considered a veteran team led by a player that will be one of the best point guards in the country. Staying healthy will be a big key for success next season.

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