For Colorado’s men’s basketball team, the road back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three seasons begins in the hands of sophomore point guard McKinley Wright IV.
As a freshman, Wright IV started all but one game for the Buffs while pacing them with 14.2 points and 5.5 assists per game, turning in a strong first collegiate season that went largely under-the-radar in terms of national hype.
And this year, the 6-footer who honed his game in the offseason under the guidance of the program’s all-time greatest player, Chauncey Billups, will need to play even better considering the graduations of guards George King and Dominique Collier as well as a season-ending ACL injury to seven-foot sophomore center Dallas Walton.
“We’re going to need McKinley to motivate his teammates,” CU coach Tad Boyle said at Buffs’ media day. “His teams usually come up on the winning end in practice. I want that to translate to the games now.”
That’s not to say that Wright IV doesn’t have talent around him. Even with the loss of Walton — which Boyle acknowledged puts the Buffs in a place where they “certainly can’t afford another injury to (the) front line” — CU still has a decent amount of experience returning despite nine of their 13 scholarship players being freshmen or sophomores.
The question is whether that young talent can come along quick enough to improve on CU’s 17-15 record last season, in which the Buffs posted a paltry 1-10 mark on the road and didn’t receive an invite to the NIT.
“Road wins is a big thing for any team that wants to win,” senior guard Namon Wright said. “It sounds simple but you take care of non-conference a majority of the time, you split road games, and you take care of home games, and that’s kind of how it works to win 20-plus games.”
CU, which opens the season against Drake on Nov. 13 in Boulder, has won 20 games five times in eight seasons under Boyle. In addition to Wright IV and Wright, the Buffs feature other key returners in junior forward Lucas Siewert and sophomore forward Alex Strating. Plus, CU picked up a three-point shooter via transfer Shane Gatling (39 percent from beyond the arc for Iowa’s Indian Hills Community College last year) and Boulder finally gets to see Evan Battey suit up.
Battey, who received an NCAA-mandated academic redshirt last season because he did not graduate high school in four years, suffered a stroke last December. The eligibility and health issues kept him off the court for more than two years, and the 6-8 forward only began playing competitively again in August.
“I took like five months off, just recovering, speech therapy, physical therapy, all that,” Battey said. “It’s basically like being a toddler once again, like the fundamentals of chewing, talking, pronouncing syllables.”
But Battey is back to full strength now, and he’ll be one critical big man who will have to rise up with Walton sidelined in order for the Buffs to surpass the pundits’ lowly predictions; the preseason Pac-12 media poll picked Colorado to finish seventh.
“There definitely are rotation possibilities — we are going to be able to play small and play big,” Boyle said. “Obviously, we can’t play as big without Dallas as we could with Dallas as we don’t have a 7-footer now, so it limits us that way. But I still think with Lucas, Evan and (6-7 sophomore forward) Tyler (Bey) in there, kind of a three-post rotation, you can play big.”
Plus, 6-11 freshman forward Jakub Dombek — one of two international recruits on the team along with Strating — “keeps getting better and better”, Boyle noted, despite the fact he’s only played the game for about four years. And a pair of local recruits in 6-7 sophomore guard/forward D’Shawn Schwartz (Sand Creek) and 6-4 freshman guard Daylen Kountz (Denver East) might join Gatling in having an impact on CU’s knockdown shooter void.
The Buffs believe the pieces are there. But beyond Wright IV, they also know grit and focus have to be at the forefront every time they take the court.
“Defense, competing, rebounding,” Battey said. “The offense will take care of itself because McKinley is a special point guard and we have shooters, we have length, athleticism. So just defense and mentality is the key for us.”