I'm an NBA man. I haven't always been an "NBA only" guy, but since I took over Pickaxe and Roll (now Denver Stiffs) in January of 2008 I wanted to focus more on the NBA so I could be even more knowledgeable about the Denver Nuggets.
Growing up though, I loved the college game. My mom entered a pool at work and drew the University of Cincinnati to win the NCAA tournament. A young guard named Nick Van Exel carried that team all the way to the Final Four and I was hooked the whole way. I remember watching another young guard, out of Denver, lead the University of Colorado past Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers in the NCAA tournament.
As the 2010-11 college basketball season is set to get underway in a few weeks, I'm again drawn to the college game, this time by two more special young guards. The main attractions for CU this season are guards Alec Burks (sophomore) and Cory Higgins (senior). At 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-5, respectively, the two players will be expected to carry the load for CU this season.
Both Burks and Higgins were named to the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 watch list. How big of an honor is it to make this list? Well, consider this: only six teams had two players named to the list ... No. 1 ranked Duke, No. 2 ranked Michigan State, No. 12 ranked Gonzaga, No. 13 ranked Syracuse and unranked CU. Only one team had three players named to the list (No. 8 ranked Purdue). That's some pretty nice company for a school known more for their football program than their basketball team. No. 3 ranked Kansas State, No. 7 ranked Kansas, No. 9 ranked North Carolina, and No. 21 ranked Georgetown each had one player make the list.
So, with two highly respected wing players on the roster, why isn't CU being talked about more? The Buffaloes will start the season unranked and in an interview on 87.7 The Ticket with Charles Johnson and Joel Klatt, new Buffs head coach Tad Boyle talked about CU being picked by the coaches in the Big 12 to finish 9th in the conference. It seems to me that CU might be heading into this season exactly where they want to be and right where they should be ... a bit under the radar.
The Buffs finished the 2009-10 regular season with a 15-15 record and then they lost in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament to Texas Tech, making their overall record last year 15-16. The Buffs were plagued last year with shoddy defense and poor rebounding. Former head coach Jeff Bzdelik was known for being a defensive-minded coach while he was with the Denver Nuggets, but it didn't translate at CU. With Bzdelik leaving to take over Wake Forest, the program was left looking for a head coach.
It would appear that CU athletic director Mike Bohn make the perfect hire with Tad Boyle. The new coach is a Colorado native, having grown up in Greeley and putting down roots in Colorado the last few years while coaching at the University of Northern Colorado. In his first season at UNC, Boyle inherited a team he didn't recruit and finished the season 4-24. His career record at UNC was 56-66, and last season with a team all his own he finished with a 25-8 record. In college, Boyle played at the University of Kansas under coaching legend Larry Brown, so you know he knows discipline. He's brought in his own staff, which includes Director of Basketball Operations Rodney Billups, the younger brother to Denver Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups. With a revamped staff and the hunger of a coach taking his dream job, Boyle seems like the perfect fit and he's been preaching defense and rebounding since he stepped in the door for the Buffs.
Colorado's leading rebounder last season was 6-foot-6 Burks, who pulled down five boards a game. That isn't going to cut it if the team wants to compete for a spot in post-season play. So who is going to step up for this Buffs team and get them going in the right direction? Last year CU started well enough with a 10-6 mark, but from there they went 5-10 to finish 15-16--most of that can be blamed on young and inexperienced players like Burks. But this year with a season under their belts, this team needs to gel in a hurry and close strong.
Let's take a look at the major players for the Buffs and how they figure into the gameplan moving forward. Bzdelik used a rotation last season that featured 10-players who appeared in 23 games or more and played 11+ minutes or more. Six players averaged 21+ minutes per game and two players averaged 30+ minutes per game (Higgins and Burks).
Shannon Sharpe: The 6-foot-1 guard missed last season when injuring his knee after a dunk in the team's first practice ... within the first five minutes. The crazy athletic guard shares a famous name, but could have people in Boulder talking about the new Sharpe in town after witnessing some of his play. Check out these highlights. Sharpe will be a redshirt freshman, and to expect a lot from the California kid is probably the wrong thinking, but he is being touted as a hard worker and excellent defender. He can carve out his own role this season and could find himself playing a key role for the team.
Nate Tomlinson: The 6-foot-3 Sydney, Australia product averaged 27.3 minutes last season and led the team with 4.2 assists per game. But Tomlinson may see his role reduced this season depending on Sharpe's progression. Tomlinson was a steady hand behind the three-point line where he shot 43.3 percent and the junior's experience will be counted on at point guard, but he could easily lose his gig to Sharpe as the season wears on.
Cory Higgins: The team's leading scorer shot just over 50 percent from the field and poured in 18.9 points per game last season. His father played 13 seasons in the NBA and is now the general manager for the Charlotte Bobcats ... oh and his godfather is Michael Jordan. The Buffs will go as their senior guard goes. With Higgins looking at continuing his career in the NBA, he should have a fine season and could make some history at CU this season.
Alec Burks: The kid that can do a little bit of everything. As a freshman, the 6-foot-6 and 185 pound Burks averaged 17.1 ppg and five rebounds. Last year, like lots of kids coming from high school to college, Burks' strongest parts of his game all centered around him getting near the paint. He can get to the rim with ease, make tricky off-balance runners, and finish around or above the rim with ease. Like most young players he also must continue to work on expanding his shooting range, get better defensively, and add some bulk to his wiry frame. Boyle has already stated that Burks has great awareness on defense and that he has been hitting the weight room hard ... love to hear those things out of young players. Depending on the NBA's ability to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement, we may or may not see Burks in the NBA next season. He's being projected anywhere from the No. 4 pick to a late first round pick and his stock will fall or rise depending on his play and potential this season. Talk about pressure.
Marcus Relphorde: A 6-foot-7 and 220 pound senior averaged 27 minutes per game and put up 11 points and four rebounds per game. Relphorde needs to hit the glass a lot more and he needs to improve on his 41.1 percent field goal shooting ... he's treading around Allen Iverson territory there and that's not good for your small forward.
Austin Dufault: The 6-foot-9, 230 pound junior averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds in 21.5 minutes per game. Dufault is a projected starter and will need to really improve his rebounding numbers. At just 6-foot-9 he's not an intimidating shot blocker. He will have to find his niche quickly and play bigger than he's listed ... which a lot of college players do.
Shane Harris-Tunks: The big man with some potential. From Liverpool, Australia, Tunks stands 6-foot-11 and has bulked up to around 250 pounds, adding about 20-25 pounds since last season. Tunks underwhelmed last year as a freshman averaging 1.8 points and just 1.6 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per game. It's not clear if Tunks will go boom or bust this season, but he'll have every opportunity to prove that he can play and thrive at the college level. Tunks wont be the biggest guy on the roster as true freshman Ben Mills at 7-foot will take that honor, but Mills might not be the answer as a raw big man.
The Buffs have a surplus of talent in the backcourt and like their state's NBA team, the Nuggets, the Buffs could use some help in the frontcourt. Higgins and Burks will keep the Buffs in a lot of games and the team could very well make some noise this season as the program appears to be on the rise. But the problem with college basketball is that guys will leave early for brighter pastures in the NBA and if the lockout doesn't happen CU fans could be robbed of one or two more seasons from the exciting Burks ... so now is the time for the Buffs.
Nov 12 season/home opener vs. Idaho State at 7 p.m. MDT
Nov 16 at Georgia
Dec 8 vs Colorado State
Jan 8 vs Missouri
Jan 12 at Kansas State
Jan 25 vs Kansas
Jan 29 at Baylor
Feb 5 at Missouri
Feb 12 vs Kansas State
Feb 19 at Kansas
Feb 26 vs Texas