As of today, February 25th, Tad Boyle's Buffaloes stand at 12-14 overall and 5-9 in Pac-12 play. Barring some miraculous revelation on the offensive end of the court they will not be participating in postseason play of any kind for the first time since the 2009-2010 season. The Buffs need to make it to 16 wins to even merit an invite to the CBI and, while it's still possible to claim four more victories, that's very much a long and contested shot. You know, the kind of shot that Askia Booker thrives on.
This wasn't the way 'Ski was supposed to go out. He was supposed to become the first Colorado player to make four trips to the NCAA tournament. He was supposed to be leading the Buffaloes to a Post-Spencer resurgence while fighting for a top four seed in Las Vegas, not scrapping to possibly be invited to major college basketball's worst consolation prize. This finale is not at all befitting of the story that Askia Booker spun while playing basketball in Boulder.
The #1, undisputed champion of 'Ski moments will obviously always be the time he somehow euro-stepped from half court, let stone loose from sling, and finally felled the most annoying giant west of the Mississippi.
That's the one every Buff fan will watch and remember for the rest of their lives, likely the greatest shot in program history. That shot was the pinnacle of a career that to that point had already involved a multitude of big shots and big moments. It's often forgotten amidst Carlon Brown's clutch performance and Andre Roberson and Austin Dufault's massive efforts down low, but as a freshman Booker led the Buffs in scoring with 16 points in their 68-64 first round upset of UNLV in March of 2012. That came following the Buffaloes' incredulous run of four wins in four nights in Los Angeles, where 'Ski averaged 20 minutes a game and hit a few timely shots along the way to help Colorado win the inaugural Pac-12 Championship.
The next season, right off the bat, he would score 16, 19, and 23 points in consecutive games against Dayton, Baylor (sweet revenge), and Murray State en route to a Charleston Classic title and a tournament MVP honor. He would average 12.4 points per game that season, 13.7 the next, and is currently averaging 14.3 this season as he sits eighth on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,634 points going into the Arizona game on Thursday night. His career high came in naturally ridiculous fashion this past January in an outrageous performance at the Galen Center, as he poured in 43 points in 51 minutes dragging the Buffs to a victory over USC in triple overtime.
With Askia though, it was never really about the numbers. Sure, he could be considered a volume shooter but percentages and totals never told the whole story. He hit shots at times when the team needed them most. 'Ski ran extremely hot and extremely cold but he was always absolutely fearless, some would say to a fault, and that fearlessness helped Colorado win a lot of basketball games. He genuinely believes that each shot he lets fly is going in, and the result of that shot doesn't dictate his choice when taking the next. How many countless times was the Coors Events Center holding its collective breath as 'Ski pulled up for a three in transition, or caught the ball on the perimeter with a hand in his face, or pulled up from 18 feet and initiated the launch sequence, or charged the lane lunging through the trees towards yet another ridiculous floating finish? His agility and quickness could at times be jaw dropping, on both ends of the floor. Askia Booker might be the most exciting and most ridiculous player we ever watch play for the Colorado Buffaloes. He was a crucial and incredibly fun part of the most successful run in school history, and for that I thank him.
Now, on the matter of the current state of the team. Things have not panned out quite as Tad Boyle saw them unfolding while on the recruiting trail over the past few years. The issues plaguing this team slowly bubbled up last year following the injury in Seattle but Josh Scott was healthy enough and the team had a strong enough resume to pull themselves into the tournament. Once there we saw what this season would really look like, the Pitt beatdown was no one-off. Tad's been criticized over the past few seasons for not recruiting a pure shooter or two and that weakness has fully come home to roost this year. With no knock down threat, or any threat outside of Booker, on the outside teams have been able to play zone on Colorado a majority of the time, which absolutely confounds this offense that's full of players who are not confident enough to take and make an open shot with any amount of consistency.
The damning statistic that always gets brought up is the assist to turnover ratio. The Buffs are currently averaging 11.5 assists per game to 13.4 turnovers. Perhaps in an attempt to correct for that shortcoming the ball has been getting swung around the perimeter for 25 seconds only to lead to two or three decent shots passed up per possession. Down low the extra pass is made a bit too much, instead of finishing with points or a foul the play ends up becoming a turnover all too often. In addition to not being able to shoot themselves out of a zone, no guard on this team (even Askia has had serious turnover issues all season) is a particularly secure ball handler at the moment. Lacking a confident second scoring option, guards that can consistently get the ball into the post, and a healthy Josh Scott this offense has devolved into one of the worst in the nation.
This team can still play Tadball on defense, they've got length and athleticism at the least. In the games they've won they've managed to out-rebound the opposition and hold them to at least a mediocre field goal percentage while doing enough on offense by making an unusual number of outside shots and having effective nights from Wes Gordon, Josh Scott, and Dustin Thomas down low. When they get beat, they allow an inordinate amount of lightly contested threes and are unable to answer scoring runs, instead going into prolonged scoring droughts that involve turning the ball over consistently and being unable to finish at the rim, or anywhere.
Beyond the basketball issues, this squad lacks a commanding presence. Askia is ostensibly the leader on the court but he's not one to take charge off of it and Josh has been too hobbled by his back to fully assert himself on the floor. Overall, it's clear now that this team isn't mentally tough enough to overcome and improve upon any of the issues facing them. Additionally, there have been multiple disciplinary issues leading to benchings and suspensions throughout the year, more than we've ever seen under Tad. Xavier Johnson in particular has seemed to be mentally lost for the majority of the season. The players have said repeatedly that they get along and that there's no tension within the locker room which is all fine but it's pretty clear that they don't possess basketball chemistry. The offense is disjointed and unfocused, no one seems to move with the precision and purpose necessary to score the basketball. Entire halves are spent in a hesitant and tentative state, until the deficit is too large to overcome when they finally do turn on the engines.
This all sounds like pretty dire stuff, and it's easy to feel down about next year's prospects. The only contributor who leaves the team after this season is Askia, so all of these same skill sets will be back. There are, however, more than a few reasons for optimism. Much has been made of the potential of the sophomore class, and while they may be mostly who they are by now, there is still room for any or all of them to make a leap, or even show incremental improvement which would make a significant difference. Dustin Thomas could emerge as a very real scoring threat and a matchup problem for other teams. Dom Collier and Tory Miller will be very, very good players and I am very much looking forward to them running this program in the coming years. The largest piece of hope rests with Dom, he can be the key that unlocks all locks. The experience those two gained this year is invaluable, and they will only grow stronger and more confident going forward. Josh and Wes, when fully healthy, are still a top tier front court, and Wes still hasn't found his ceiling.
Waiting in the wings is George King, who showed flashes of real athleticism last year and a strong penchant for getting to the rim. If he can be a slasher who finishes, the offense will open up that much more next year when he'll be kicking it to Providence transfer Josh Fortune, who may be the best shooter the program has seen since the days of Levi Knutson. (Fingers tightly crossed on that one.) Aside from the performance of the players, it's clear that the offensive scheme needs to be entirely revamped. Josh and Wes constantly handling the ball up top has accomplished next to nothing and with his back issues it's asking way too much of Josh to make things happen from the elbow. Aside from working with his current staff to create a new offensive system, Tad might want to think about bringing in a fresh offensive mind in the offseason to help the process.
I do not believe that this season marks the end of a run. It's easy to slip back into the pre-Tad mindset, of expecting mediocrity and woe is us, but every successful program experiences down years. For a program in CU's current position a down year may involve missing postseason play entirely, and that's not the end of the world. More of us should probably have entertained the possibility of a sub-.500 season coming, without a healthy Josh this is the first Boyle team without an obvious NBA player on the roster. The sophomore class was still unproven coming in and Tad also lacked the services of a full-time true point guard. Thankfully, Dom will be that guy starting this November. So while this year has been troubling, concerning, and frustrating, both on and off the court, this program is OK. I expect a more concerted and coordinated effort come next season, and I believe that Tad is too smart not to create some fixes between March and November. In the meantime I'm going to enjoy Askia's last 5 or 6 (or 7 or 8 come on it's Vegas things happen there) games as a Colorado Buffalo. I suspect he's got a few more ludicrous performances in store for us.