Floors and Ceilings

It was written as a compliment, but it was a back-handed compliment at best.

Jon Wilner, Pac-12 scribe from the San Jose Mercury News, was in a bind. Never one to sing the praises of CU athletics, be it in preseason rankings or in his in-season “Power Rankings”, Wilner was writing a story about Pac-12 basketball in his latest “Stock Report“. Considering that CU had finished with its highest-ever seeding in the Pac-12 tournament (third) and highest-ever NCAA tournament seeding (fifth), Wilner could hardly downplay CU’s recent achievements (especially in light of the fact that the Buffs had beaten his standard-bearing USC Trojans not once, not twice, but three times).

So, Wilner wrote about how well the Buffs were doing … by off-setting it against their dismal recent past.

Wrote Wilner … Regardless of CU’s fate in the NCAA tournament, this has been a year to remember in Boulder.

It’s the first sports cycle since 2002-03 in which the Buffaloes played in a bowl game and reached the NCAA tournament.

CU did the postseason double in the 2016 calendar year, with a March Madness appearance (first round exit) followed the next fall year by an Alamo Bowl showing.

(If you’re curious: The last time CU went bowling and won an NCAA tournament game in the same school year was 1996-97.)

Not a bad five months in Boulder.

Gee, thanks.

But Wilner’s “compliments” got me to thinking. While Colorado is still lacking in consistent national rankings in the two high profile sports – football and men’s basketball – headway is being made. Both teams were ranked in the Top 25 this season, albeit only briefly. That, in and of itself, is a sign of progress.

How to measure that progress?

Men’s basketball …

The floor for Colorado basketball, for decades, was very, very low. The Buffs didn’t get a whiff of the NCAA tournament for almost 30 years, going from 1969 to 1997 without a March Madness bid. I remember well those dark days, when the Buffs would load up easy games in the non-conference schedule, then try and win enough Big Eight/12 games to qualify for the NIT.

(One example … the 1999-2000 Buffs. CU early season victims that year included St. Mary’s, Regis, Yale, Eastern Washington, New Mexico State and Denver. The Buffs finished 18-13, which got them into the NIT … where they were promptly bounced by Southern Illinois in the first round).

Under Tad Boyle all that has changed.

The floor for the program is now a 20-win season, something which was all but unheard of prior to Boyle’s arrival (a grand total of four 20-win seasons in CU’s first 108 years of playing basketball). The Buffs have won 20 or more games in eight of his 11 seasons in Boulder. Getting by with a winning record and a hoped for NIT bid – no longer on CU’s radar.

While the floor for CU basketball has undeniably been raised, the ceiling for CU basketball has been an issue the past few years.

Despite all of the success for the program, the Buffs under Tad Boyle were never able to earn a bye for the Pac-12 tournament (fourth place finish or higher), and were not able to make any noise in the NCAA Tournament when they did get there (1-4 under Boyle).

The 2020-21 Buffs smashed through both of those ceilings.

Colorado finished third in the Pac-12 conference standings, earning a bye into the tournament. They got past Cal and USC (for the third time this season), earning a place in the tournament championship game … for only the third time in school history.

(Let’s let that one sink in for a moment. In the 40+ years conferences have been conducting tournaments, CU has made it to the finals all of three times: 1990; 2012; and 2021).

The Buffs’ strong finish earned them their highest-ever seeding in the NCAA Tournament (5th; highest seeding before was 8th).

All well and good, but could the Buffs deliver? Could the Buffs justify having the highest seed afforded a Pac-12 team?

I’m going with “yes”.

Behind the able leadership of McKinley Wright (12 points; 13 assists; team-high five rebounds … and no turnovers) and the record-setting barrage of three-pointers (Buffs hit 16-of-25 from three; led by Jabari Walker’s 5-5 effort), the Buffs built an early 17-7 lead, never allowing Georgetown to make a run the remainder of the game in a 96-73 rout.

With a top-rated recruiting Class in the wings, the floor for the program will likely remain a 20-win season and, at the very least, NCAA tournament bid consideration every March.

The ceiling? It’s moved beyond a No. 5 finish in the Pac-12 standings, and a one-and-done in the Big Dance.

How high can it go?

We’ll see …

Football … 

The floor for Colorado football was hit early and often during the early years of the Buffs’ run in the Pac-12. Not only was Colorado consistently finishing last in the Pac-12 South (after never finishing alone in last place in any seasons in the Big Seven, Big 8, or Big 12), but the Buffs often looked really, really bad in posting all of those losses.

The ceiling the past 15 years or so?

Competitive football.

There were occasional flirtations with a sixth win and a bowl bid, but the were few and far between. After the Buffs completed a worst-to-first run in 2016, though, it looked like Colorado may have turned a corner.


Three straight 5-7 seasons continued the frustration. Over the course of the 2017-19 seasons, the Buffs had ten games – ten separate opportunities over three seasons – to post a sixth win and obtain a bowl bid.

And the Buffs went 0-10.

The ceiling for the program appeared to be just trying to get to six wins and a minor bowl.

Then Karl Dorrell came along.

The Buffs were picked to finish last in the COVID-shortened season (the over/under for CU in a projected seven game season? 0.5 wins). Karl Dorrell had been hired in late February, had to piece together a coaching staff when most coaches were in place for the 2020 season, and had to get players coached up and motivated without being able to practice with the team for his first six months on the job.

The Daily Camera, as I have often quoted, said the Buff Nation needed to be prepared for the reality that the Buffs were as likely to finish 0-7 as they were to finish 4-3.

All the Buffs did under Karl Dorrell is open 4-0, earn a national ranking, and earn their second bowl bid in five seasons.

A sign of things to come?

Will five wins remain the ceiling for the CU football team … or become the new floor?

We’ll see …

Women’s Basketball … 

It’s been awhile since Colorado women’s basketball has been relevant. As members of the Big Eight, which for women’s basketball ran from 1982-96, no team had a better overall record than CU’s 125-69 (with four titles).

As members of the Pac-12, Colorado has posted a 62-122 record … 10th-best in the league.

There hasn’t been much success of late, with fifth-year head coach JR Payne posting a 72-74 overall record to date. The Buffs made it to the third round of the WNIT in her first season, 2016-17, but haven’t been to the post-season since … until this year.

With a 75-71 win over Nebraska on Saturday, the Buffs have advanced to the Elite Eight of the WNIT, with a 12-10 overall record. The Buffs, like their male counterparts, will play again on Monday.

A sign of better days to come? …

And, while I’ve got you … 

It’s not just football and men’s basketball … let’s talk about CU’s excellent Olympic sports programs.

CU’s Olympic sports, which have been doing well since the Buffs joined the Pac-12 a decade ago, continue to make their mark.

The ceilings for CU’s programs continue to be high, but, fortunately for the Buff Nation, the floors are also being raised.

Take a look …

Olympic Sports …

— On Friday, the CU women’s volleyball team took down No. 11 Utah … with that win coming two weeks after the Buffs took down No. 12 UCLA. The Buffs have been consistently good since Colorado joined the Pac-12, with four NCAA appearances. Despite having to face Pac-12 ranked Pac-12 opponents on almost a weekly basis, the floor for the Buffs is a winning season … the ceiling an NCAA tournament berth;

— The CU women’s lacrosse team also has a win over a ranked team so far this season (over No. 14 Utah). For a team which didn’t even exist until 2014, the Buffs have made a name for themselves nationally. CU has earned NCAA tournament berths every year the Buffs have fielded a team – a pretty high floor – with a conference championship (earned in 2018), with a deep run into the NCAA championships their very high ceiling;

— Another team with a ridiculously high ceiling is the CU ski team. Winner of 20 of CU 28 national championships, it’s a bad year if Colorado finishes outside the top three nationally. Such was the case again this year, when the Buffs finished second at the NCAA championships. There was reason for concern, what with Richard Rokos, CU’s coach for the past 31 years, retiring. The Buffs, though, came through with a home run hire. Andy LeRoy, who was an Olympian, All-American, and individual national champion at CU, is coming home … after leading rival Denver University to six national championships;

— CU women’s soccer team already has wins over No. 10 Cal and No. 14 USC this year. With Danny Sanchez as head coach, the Buffs have earned NCAA tournament berths five times since CU joined the Pac-12, including three of the past four seasons. Yet another Buff program with a floor which includes a winning season and NCAA tournament consideration;

— CU women’s tennis has also had a good start to their 2021 campaign. After a win over No. 12 Cal, the Buffs entered the national rankings at No. 47, the first time the Buffs have been ranked since 2015.

… and all this without discussing the CU cross country teams. The Buffs normally compete for national championships (CU cross country have posted seven national titles). The move to the spring, though, worked against the Buffs. For most programs, a seventh-place finish nationally for the women and a 14th-place finish for the men would be considered a good year. At CU, it was a down year, with CU finishing with one team outside of the top ten in the country for the first time since 2012 (though Abby Nichols earned All-American honors, with Eduardo Herrera being named the Pac-12 Cross Country Male Athlete of the Year).

Floors and ceilings … as goes the football team, so goes the athletic department.

The CU football team has a 29-27 over the past five seasons … not great, but not embarrassing, either. Five wins a season, the ceiling for the past few years, may soon become the floor.

Both of CU’s basketball teams are playing in the post-season, rising above previous ceilings. All of the CU Olympic sports are defeating ranked teams on a regular basis.

The University of Colorado athletic department seems to be … finally … finding its way as a power to be reckoned with in the Pac-12.

At least, let’s hope so …


7 Replies to “Floors and Ceilings”

  1. Don’t want to sound too harsh, but if you’ve been paying attention the Pac12 Brand is at it’s lowest in my long lifetime. It’s come to full focus this tournament. Was confident vs. G-Town after OSU took out the Vols (who of course beat us). If I still bet would have cleaned house on all the Pac12 teams and of course still believe OU would have covered.
    The Pac12 tourney teams’ defense is travelling very well, and the quality of BB being played is on par with the Pac12 Tourney overall. Hoping at least (2) to the 8 (BUFFS BABY!), and one to the Final Four.
    Wilner, Walton, et al should be gloating and vocal during the next few weeks.

    BTW who was advance scouting for G-Town?? No one else will say it, but part of that drubbing was on the admin/operations of the team and thereby ultimately on big Pat. Again, comes down to Pac12 respect….looks like they didn’t even bother other than Kin/Horne/Battey.

    1. Historically and stereotypically the Pac doesn’t play tough defense (football carrying over to BB…) and it’s true in my lifetime we’ve had trouble with the physical defenses of the Big East style (we always seem to open against) teams.
      This year Pac12 teams are finding that they are flipping the script a bit. This all comes with the huge bonus that offensively teams are operating ‘comfortably’ as they’ve all been playing versus good defenses in the conference all year.

      1. Chuck just said, ‘I think the committee under-rated the Pac-12’…um you think?
        OSU wins over OSU was impressive as the Cowboys are a good defensive team. Oregon/Iowa…just shows the Big 10 is not nearly as athletic as others, a 2 seed? All layups/dunks and wide open 3’s.

  2. I too was very disappointed by how much discussion was about Ewing, (who is a well known sports figure), but none about Tad and all that he has done in running a very clean program. Barkley was the only one who gave credit to CU. Now we’ll have to reads about how great the FSU team and coach is….

  3. Why is Wilner the “pre eminent” PAC12 sportswriter? He is wrong most of the time….except when trolling with history of course. We should examine his history some time and throw it in his face. He is just another one of hundreds of paper bound overpaid pinheads who never got closer to a field or court in high school than washing jocks.
    What hurts is ESPN. They actually have accomplished athletes on their panels. I doubt if they do any of the editing though. After CU’s win there was nothing on their website other than the score list when there was a blurb about every other game played in the first round.
    They even had a couple of feel good articles on their website about Ewing after the game, nothing wrong with that, but they must have thought they would turn to stone if they had to mention Tad or IV’s name.
    I watched the UCLA game last night and at halftime they had to show clips of that game because they were broadcasting it. They also showed clips of most every other game played yesterday but I dont remember any PAC 12 games let alone Colorado. After each clip each panel member would chip in with his comments. At the very end one of them must have felt guilty because he actually did use 2 sentences mentioning he Buff’s win before fade to commercials.
    I shouldnt complain too much cause that makes it way more satisfying when the Buff’s take down their pets.
    Another thing that makes the dance exciting are the Ohios and the Abilene Christians making it look like the NCAA left the seeding, after the no 1s, to bozos like Wilner.

    1. Simple answer to: “Why is Wilner the “pre eminent” PAC12 sportswriter? ” because everyone else bailed, newspapers cut back, ESPN fired staff & took out comments; it was too hard to get an intern to regulate. That eventually left him to take it & run with it.

      One LA Times story on CU v USC was too busy calling Wright “the little point guard” because he knew nothing of value to add.

      1. True story. And all the tv contracts hinge upon is supply and demand. Pac 12 wins more? They get more. The rub is that we in the west – by broad generalization – have way more in our lives than college sports. Nevertheless, the pac 12 tourney run is nice. Buffs about to start.

        And a strong football season will do wonders for the conference too.

        Oh shit. Just heard about some shooting in Boulder. Come on, people.

        Go Buffs

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