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 University of Colorado Boulder’s head coach, Tad Boyle, in the Arizona State game in Boulder on February 24, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
University of Colorado Boulder’s head coach, Tad Boyle, in the Arizona State game in Boulder on February 24, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Tad Boyle has had better basketball teams than the one that took the floor this year at Colorado.

Boyle’s had better results, too, than what this team has done, even if the Buffaloes wind up winning the NIT.

Boyle, however, has put together one of his best seasons as the head coach in Boulder.

On Tuesday night, CU (21-11) will host St. Bonaventure (20-9) in the first round of the NIT. It’s not what the Buffs had hoped for when the season began, or even just a few days ago. The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal and anything short of that will bring a measure of disappointment.

Getting CU to this point, however, took a heck of a job from Boyle and his staff.

“It’s one of the best coaching jobs I think he’s done,” CU athletic director Rick George said. “I still think we should be in the NCAA Tournament, but we’re not. But, I like what he’s done this year for sure.”

A year ago, CU advanced to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, but then lost one of the best players in program history (point guard McKinley Wright IV) to graduation. Four other key rotational players – Maddox Daniels, Jeriah Horne, D’Shawn Schwartz and Dallas Walton – also graduated.

With the exception of senior leaders Evan Battey and Elijah Parquet, this year’s squad has featured youth – and lots of it. Even more so since Parquet’s season-ending foot injury in late January.

Sophomore Jabari Walker has blossomed into the one of the best players in the Pac-12, while Keeshawn Barthelemy, Nique Clifford, Tristin da Silva and Luke O’Brien have filled significantly bigger roles than they did a year ago as freshmen.

To fill holes from last year, Boyle signed the Pac-12’s best recruiting class, but guards K.J. Simpson and Julian Hammond III were the only ones to play the entire season. Center Lawson Lovering suffered a season-ending injury in January and two players (Quincy Allen and Javon Ruffin) haven’t played at all this season because of injuries.

Another hole was seemingly filled with the addition last summer of graduate transfer Mason Faulkner, a prolific scorer at Western Carolina. Faulkner, however, changed his mind in August and bolted for Louisville, leaving Boyle without a key veteran he was counting on for scoring and leadership.

For the second half of the season, the Buffs have been left with an eight-man rotation, with Battey as the only upperclassman.

“He’s had a young team and he’s only had eight players (down the stretch),” George said. “I think he’s done a phenomenal job.”

Early on, this team didn’t look worthy of the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament. They lost to Southern Illinois and got smacked at home by Tennessee. They also sputtered through narrow wins against Duquesne, Brown, Eastern Washington and Milwaukee.

The Buffs played better in January, but around the time Lovering and Parquet were lost for the season, the Buffs went through a disastrous three-game stretch in losses to Washington, Washington State and Oregon. COVID-19 issues prevented the Buffs from having da Silva for the losses in Washington and Boyle for the Oregon game.

Since then, CU has been a different team. The Buffs are 8-2 in their last 10 games, including an upset of No. 2 Arizona on Feb. 26.

“We really kind of locked in,” George said. “I think we had a really good February and we started off good in March and we just didn’t have enough to beat Arizona (in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals last week).”

In some ways, Boyle is the victim of his own success at CU. Now in his 12th season as the Buffs’ head coach, he has raised the bar to a level never before seen with this program.

CU’s history has included some remarkable teams, including Final Four runs in 1942 and 1955, but no coach has ever achieved the sustained level of success that Boyle has had in Boulder.

The expectation is and should be the NCAA Tournament. CU fell short of that, but in a transitional season that featured growing pains from young players and unexpected losses to the depth and rotation, Boyle has done a masterful job in getting the Buffs to another 20-win campaign, a high seed in the NIT and at least in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament.

This isn’t Boyle’s best team, but it just might be his most impressive season.

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