BOULDER, Colo. -- At the end of what was a spirited but very ragged 2.5-hour practice, Tad Boyle gathered his Colorado Buffaloes around center court of the practice gym's floor. It was the third day of preparation for this week's trip to France, Belgium and Holland, a prime opportunity for a very young Buffaloes squad to speed up its learning curve ahead of October's official start of practice, and Boyle wasn't surprised by what he had seen. Fatigue -- both mental and physical -- had set in, especially with the large number of freshmen on the roster getting their first introduction to the college game.
In the huddle, Boyle had one message: Finish. Finish academically. Finish on the court. Finish in the weight room. Don't cut corners, don't waste precious minutes of a practice, don't cheat yourself or your teammates.
It was an apt mandate. Last year, the Buffaloes finished first in the Pac-12 tournament, winning four straight games to punch their first ticket to the NCAA tournament since 2003. And now, in his third year in Boulder, Boyle is looking forward to finishing a development cycle after two straight 24-win campaigns were followed by large-scale roster turnover. With several of his six freshmen expected to take on significant roles, though, Boyle knows that he must replace more than the on-court stats that departed with Carlon Brown, Austin Dufault and Nate Tomlinson.
"The biggest thing as a group those guys brought was a great sense of leadership," Boyle said, "and that's what we're going to have to replace."
Based on Wednesday's evidence, there's much on-court work to be done to mold this group into a cohesive team, but with three returning standouts and the most hyped incoming class in the program's history, things look very promising. The Buffaloes have had talent in the past -- Chauncey Billups is the leading name, but standouts like Cory Higgins, Richard Roby and Alec Burks have also graced recent rosters -- but a fortuitous confluence of events has lifted Colorado to the highest mark in the program's spotty modern history.
In spring 2010, Jeff Bzdelik hightailed it to Wake Forest and opened the door for Boyle, reared in Greeley, Colo., to leave his hometown Northern Colorado Bears to take over the state's biggest program. Then last season, the Buffs completed their move from the Big 12 to the Pac-12. Not only did Colorado enter a league that was in a multi-year dip in form, but the pending move allowed Boyle to better recruit the West Coast, which helped land California talent like now-sophomore guards Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie (and freshman forward Xavier Johnson). Getting to play against so many West Coast teams also helped ease their transition from high school to the college game.
"I was playing against a lot of guys I knew, close to home," Booker said. "It wasn't that much of a difference, just the mindset you have to have play in college basketball. Play a little faster, smarter."
Booker, a 6-foot sophomore who averaged 9.1 points a game last season off the bench, will play off the ball while the 6-5 Dinwiddie, who averaged 10.0 points per game on 43 percent from three-point range, will now primarily man the point. They'll get copious support from the third main returnee, Andre Roberson, a 6-7 jumping jack who averaged more than 11 points and 11 rebounds a game last season and probably should have been the league's defensive player of the year.
The overall level these Buffaloes can reach, though, likely will depend on the development of their freshmen, notably Johnson and 6-10 center Josh Scott, and perhaps 6-7 wing Chris Jenkins, whose flat-but-effective three-point shot may be needed on a team that looks a little shy on natural scorers. Of course, that won't matter as much if Boyle can mold this team more in the image of last season's Buffaloes, who finished 36th in the nation in defensive efficiency per KenPom.com, and not his initial run-and-gun squad who were 10th in Division I offensively but couldn't stop a soul. At this stage, Boyle isn't sure what this group will become, although his preference is clear.
"I think each team has to form its own identity and own personality," Boyle said, "but hopefully every team from here on forward that we're here is a team that prides itself on defense and rebounding."
With influxes of high-end freshmen talent, UCLA and Arizona are tapped by many to be the class of the Pac-12 this season, but both the Bruins and Wildcats have significant question marks. UCLA appears, on paper, to be slow defensively and, after dismissing Anthony Stover last week, doesn't have a natural rim-protector or experienced center if Josh Smith once again is hampered by fitness issues. Arizona will be leaning on a bevy of freshmen in the frontcourt and mercurial Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, a two-guard with the Musketeers, to capably handle the point.
With such a young roster, the temptation is for Colorado fans to look ahead to the 2013-14 season, where the Buffs may bring basically everyone back. But the Pac-12 is still in flux such that the opportunity is there this season for the Buffs. If the Booker-Dinwiddie backcourt thrives and the freshmen develop as expected, the Buffaloes could be good enough and deep enough to challenge for the league crown.
"We've got some pretty talented offensive guys out there," Boyle said, "so hopefully if we can get our efficiency offensively like the first year [we were here] combined with the defense and the rebounding and the intensity on that side of the ball like the second year, we can be a top-25 program."
At the very least, if Boyle has his way, they'll be there at the finish.