For once, it seems, the NCAA did right by its student-athletes. Even if was by accident. Colorado, like every other 320-plus D-1 school across the country, was permitted to begin its basketball season two weeks earlier (Sept. 30) than usual, per new NCAA rules. Thank goodness. Because by early October, CU's head coach Tad Boyle couldn't help but think, What's a matter with these guys? Not the whole team, mind you, but two of the four much-heralded freshmen. They looked, well ... terribly unheralded.
"I thought they were out of shape and they had a bad summer and didn't work very hard," Boyle says. "That's not the case at all."
In the spring, Boyle, along with women's head coach Linda Lappe and football coach Mike MacIntyre, went on an annual state-wide tour that included a stop at Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, which houses the medical school and four other health care schools. "We had some doctors make a presentation to us about what they're doing [with] blood analysis in terms of performance," Boyle says. "We all looked at each other, like, 'Should we be doing this?'"
Yes, turns out, they should. And they did. All three teams began blood analysis on their players this season, and though the studies are "in their infancy stages," as Boyle says, it's already perhaps saved a couple of his players' careers. The two freshmen concerning Boyle were diagnosed as borderline-anemic, their blood levels showing extremely low levels of iron. (CU would not release the names of the players). All of the Buffaloes freshmen are from out-of-state and hadn't been in Colorado more than a few months. The stress of Boulder's elevation (5,340 feet above sea-level) can be had on anyone -- fewer oxygen molecules in the blood means less to the muscles and organs. But it likely affected these particular players to much higher degrees given that people who suffer from anemia have less hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood, thereby getting even less to their muscles and organs.
"That altitude is a real deal," Boyle says. "We better be aware of how we're training at altitude [because] there are risks associated." Both players, CU says, have received iron supplements in the past several weeks and their endurance and level of play has arrived at what was expected.
That's crucial for Colorado, because expectations have never been higher for the basketball program. Anything less than, say, a one or two finish atop the Pac-12 and a deep (like Sweet-16-deep) run in the tourney could be considered a disappointment. CU has sold out season tickets at the Coors Events Center for the first time ever. "We're in uncharted territories as a basketball program in terms of expectations," Boyle says.
Boyle, the 50-year-old former stockbroker who's in his fourth year at CU (.645 winning percentage), has a young but experienced team that reached the NCAA tourney last March for the second straight year. Led by sophomore guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker (combined 27.7 points per game, fourth among BCS schools) and forward Josh Scott (5.7 rebounds per game as a freshman), there's no reason barring injury the team can't win 25 or more games. Dinwiddie, one of 12 college hoopsters who played for Team USA in the World University Games in Russia this summer, called this year's CU squad the "cream of the crop" in the Pac-12 during media day.
"As long as everybody's on the same page, we can be a dangerous team," the 6-foot-6, 200-pound Dinwiddie says. "It's like the old adage: The closed fist does more damage than the open hand. I'm just trying to be the muscles that pull the fist together."
Booker, the third-year guard who took 12.7 shots per game last year (three more than any other Buff), saw his three-point shot percentage drop significantly in his second year -- 37.2 to 31.2 percent. He worked to improve this summer by taking more than 500 shots a day, and 1,000 on Sundays. But expect his number of shots to shrink this season, as Booker says Dinwiddie's been coming off the dribble more in practice, allowing the him also to run the point. "I feel like from last year to this year we've done like a 180," says Booker, who, despite those shooting struggles, scored in double-digits 21 times last season. "We're [he and Dinwiddie] able to reach each other better. If I get the ball, he runs. If he gets the ball, I run ... We just have better chemistry. He adds: "For me, it's probably a better deal."
But by no means is this team flawless. The Buffs' 9.9 assists per game ranked a ridiculous 328th in the country last year. "That needs to change," Boyle says. And somehow CU will have to replace departed Andre Roberson (now with the Oklahoma City Thunder) whose presence in the paint the last three seasons produced 1,045 rebounds, second-most in school history. "We work on going," Boyle says. "Every time. Pursuing the ball. It's not just about boxing out. Andre Roberson was one of the worst box-out guys [on the team], but he went and got [the ball]."
Boyle says redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon, sophomore Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott all have the ability to average seven or eight rebounds a game. Scott gained 20 pounds in the offseason (now listed at 245) and at 6-7, can size up any center in the conference. His 10.2 ppg should rise with Roberson gone, as will his trips to the free-throw line, where he was a respectable 68-of-91 (74.7 percent). Replace Roberson's percentage (55.1) with that, and CU should have no trouble forcing the defense to play tight inside allowing more open jumpers for its swingmen.
Oh, about those four freshmen. Though coach Boyle says it's sometimes like "coaching two different teams," comparing the veterans (if sophomores can be considered veterans) with the freshmen, they've picked up the system quickly and have meshed well. "Number one, off the court, they're great," adds Booker. "Those guys are funny, the fit right in with the group that we already have ... And they're so athletic and talented."
Tre'Shaun Fletcher from Lincoln (Tacoma, Wash.) High is regarded as one of the best passers in the country and was the 90th-rated player on Scouts.com in 2013. George King, who didn't sign with CU until May, led his Brennan (Texas) High team to a 75-9 record over three seasons and averaged 17.1 ppg his senior year. Three-star prospect Dustin Thomas from Texarkana, Texas, was rated the 28th post player in the country and, as Boyle says, "has been our most consistent freshman." That said, Jaron Hopkins ("Who can jump out of the gym," says Booker), from Mesa, Arizona, is most likely to start. "Physically he's got the most capabilities," Boyle says. "Strength, size, athleticism ... he's a lot like Dinwiddie."
So, what does all this mean? Who knows. This is uncharted territory, remember. Says Dinwiddie, "You gotta understand, it really doesn't matter until you step on the floor and prove it." A non-conference schedule including Baylor on the road, Oklahoma State in Las Vegas and Harvard and Kansas at home makes for perhaps the most difficult in years. You might remember in 2011 when CU was left out of the NCAA tournament despite a 21-13 record with several wins against tourney-bound teams; many said they were left out due to a soft non-conference schedule. Boyle vowed then that he'd never allow that to happen again.
"I don't know if it's the right thing to do, wrong thing to do, I don't know if I'm going to like it," he says of the schedule. "But we're talented enough to compete."
So you'd rather win, say, half of these games than go 6-0 against lesser competition?
"I'll answer that at the end of the season."