Beyond The Colorado Buffaloes White Knight

The Colorado Buffaloes are going to miss the NCAA tournament despite a stellar season from Derrick White. The biggest problem with the Buffs may be the other seniors on the team.

Without Senior Derrick White, the University of Colorado basketball team might have torn itself apart. White’s one year with the Buffs after transferring from Colorado Springs had great potential. However, the rest of the seniors lack of leadership and consistency played against him and the team.

Going into this season, everyone pointed to a wealth of experience as a reason for optimism. Yet, the reality is that turnover within the program meant a senior class unfamiliar with each other and unable to lead outside of White’s one-man show.

The class of would be seniors this year, the 2013 recruiting class, consisted of four players: George King, Tre’Shaun Fletcher, Jaron Hopkins and Dustin Thomas.

I was excited about this class when they came to school. Hopkins had a few amazing dunks. Fletcher, a top-100 ESPN prospect, appeared to control the court well. King and Thomas showed flashes of shooting ability. I actually argued with my friend Taber that King was the weak link in this class. I was wrong.

King ended up redshirting and had a stellar sophomore season. He’s slumping in his junior year. Hopkins, Thomas and Fletcher all transferred out of the program.

On senior day, four fifth-year seniors will play their final regular season games: Derrick White, Josh Fortune, Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon.

White transferred into the program from a lower division school (The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs). Fortune spent two years at Providence College in the Big East conference before transferring to CU.  Johnson tore his achilles tendon and sat out last year. Gordon redshirted (sitting out a season) during his freshman year because he was competing against Buffaloes’ great Josh Scott.

Before becoming a diehard CU basketball fan, I was unaware how much transferring and redshirting could happen within a middle-tier major conference program. These situations led to one of the most experienced potential starting lineups in the country with four fifth-year seniors and King, the fourth-year junior. Unfortunately, experience has not propelled the Buffs forward this year.

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The seniors each had obstacles to overcome. Gordon needed to find consistency. Fortune, with a year of Pac-12 basketball experience under his belt, needed to find his shot and control the ball. Johnson, always an erratic player, had an ACL injury to heal. Derrick White had not played a game for the Buffaloes.

Everything seemed fine for the Buffs until a late November game against Colorado State in Boulder. CSU kept widening its lead against the Buffs in the second half. Watching from the stands, I expected the Buffs to close the gap, but the experienced Buffaloes stalled. It was one of the most inexplicable losses I’ve seen in Boulder.

The game showed the lack of leadership. While CSU now looks like a tournament team, CU skidded from that point on.  They struggled against teams like Fort Hayes State, and then lost their first seven games in Pac-12 play.

It’s infuriating to watch CU underperform. Talent-wise, this team is better than its record. At times, CU played to its potential through aggressive team defense and ball movement. They beat No 10 Oregon and appeared to find a groove. Then, the old Buffs returned when they lost at home to Utah.

The Buffs now only hope to secure a low seed in the NIT. The Buffs will not make the NCAA tournament, barring a miracle run to win the Pac-12 tournament. They have a formula for doing that. In 2012, one-season standout Carlon Brown propelled a Buffs squad to win the first Pac-12 basketball tournament. The problem this year is that the Pac-12 has three of the best teams in the country and the Buffs can barely focus on the court.

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The Buffs miss Josh Scott’s unique talents at center and his leadership. He was a steadying presence on the court for a Buffs team that struggled with consistency last year.

Gordon and Johnson have both spent five years with the Buffaloes. There was a slight hope that they would grow up this last year. They did not. Both served two-game suspensions in February for rules violations. If one event sums up the problems with this year’s team, it is that double suspension.

Fortune’s continued poor play kept him out of contention as a leader. King, the junior, is the Buffs most outspoken player. However, he has struggled at times on the floor this year. For whatever reason, he seems to defer to the seniors on the court.

The leadership responsibility therefore fell to Derrick White. White has led by example with defensive toughness and NBA-caliber athletic offensive play. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s his only year on the court or because of the personalities on this team, but the Buffs have not followed White’s example.

Going into the weekend, White is fourth in the Pac-12 in average points per game (17.4), seventh in average assists per game (4.1), and sixth in blocks (43).

The worst part for White is the timing of his one season. On most Buffs team during the last few years, he would have elevated the Buffs from a pretty good team to a great team. He was the type of player Josh Scott needed last year to potentially get the Buffs to their first Sweet 16 since the 1996-97 season with star Chauncey Billups.

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If there’s criticism to levy against Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle, it’s that he recruited the players that have not led this team. I get the impression that Boyle believes heavily in the personal responsibility of his best players. Scott, Spencer Dinwiddie, Carlon Brown, Andre Roberson, Alec Burks and Corey Higgins embodied that.

He doesn’t seem to have the same power to develop players who do not have a sense of personal responsibility. Part of this problem is the nature of college basketball. It’s hard to judge the leadership ability of high school seniors when evaluating talent.

It’s not that Boyle hasn’t tried different approaches. He can be hard on a team. He apparently really went after the Buffs at halftime of their loss to Utah. He’s tried everything from taking away starting jobs to playing zone defense. None of it changed the team’s culture or led to consistent good play.

Boyle has to hope for a rebound season from King, who hasn’t thrived with these seniors. If Junior Dominique Collier can overcome his injuries and become the explosive player he was in high school, maybe next year will be brighter. This assumes the players are willing to lead and hold themselves accountable.

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If we could rewrite history and have the four seniors on this team play together for four years, would this year’s results change?

It’s hard to say.

What is clear is that experience is only valuable if it can be cohesive. For the Colorado Buffaloes and this senior class, they have not achieved the necessary unity.

It’s easier to watch a team without talent struggle. At least they tried, right? It’s infuriating to watch a talented team remain inconsistent and not reach its potential. These Colorado Buffaloes could have been so much more.

This post originally appeared on 5280 Sports Network, now a part of Mile High Sports

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