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Good or bad, last impressions often prove to be the most enduring.
In the case of the Colorado men’s basketball team, the angst of the final impression left on the floor last season has been dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cast NCAA athletics into disarray pretty much since the moment the Buffaloes trudged off the floor in March after a quick ouster in the Pac-12 Conference tournament.
From following testing protocols to the off-the-court sacrifices required to keep healthy in college basketball’s pandemic season, the Buffs have had other headaches to deal with than how they ended the 2019-20 season.
On Wednesday those summer and fall sacrifices finally will come to fruition, as CU at long last gets a chance to start making amends for last year’s late swoon in a much-anticipated season opener against South Dakota at a multi-team event hosted by Kansas State.
“We’re ready to go. We can’t wait to get out on the floor,” senior wing D’Shawn Schwartz said. “It’s been a long time coming. It felt extra long just because we haven’t had any internal sources of fun. Now it’s just like when you get on that court, that’s the getaway. That’s the getaway from Zoom, from the room, all that. We’re so ready to play. It’s going to be a fun time.”
The Buffs were on track to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 last March, but when the onset of the pandemic forced the cancellation of the tournament, the Buffs were left to stew on the five-game losing streak that turned a possible run at the Pac-12 title into a tumble down the tournament seed projections.
As was the case for just about everybody, the offseason turned into being less about putting a finger on what went wrong to turning the page and remaining healthy and safe enough to compete again in 2020-21. Though league rivals like Arizona and Arizona State have suffered hiccups with their season openers, and regional peers like Colorado State and DU have momentarily been shut down, the Buffs are ready to roll.
“These kids have worked too hard. They’ve come too far,” said head coach Tad Boyle, who begins his 11th season at CU. “Again, most of our scholarship players have been on campus since June 7. They went home a little bit in August and had to do some quarantine when they came back. But think about it — from June 7 until now, they’ve handled their business. They’ve worked hard. They have sacrificed socially. They’ve sacrificed with their families, not being around them and not going home and seeing them when they’d like to. Before we start practice in the fall we usually give our guys the weekend off to go home and see them one more time because this season is going to be a long one. We couldn’t even do that.
“I’m just really proud of our guys. It will be a special tipoff. More so this year than others.”
While the Buffs boast plenty of talented veterans like Schwartz, McKinley Wright IV, Evan Battey, and graduate transfer Jeriah Horne, the program also welcomes a number of rookies, from redshirt freshman guard Keeshawn Barthelemy to four true freshmen — Nique Clifford, Tristan da Silva, Luke O’Brien and Jabari Walker. Depending on how Wednesday’s game unfolds, the long list of potential rotation players means the mix might look different when CU takes on Kansas State on Friday.
“Those are difficult decisions that we’re going to have to make this year,” Boyle said. “I’m trying to be reasonable with our players and their expectation levels when it comes to those minutes. Our guys are going to have to understand they’re probably all not going to get the minutes they want, or maybe sometimes deserve. You can’t play 13 guys. We’re going to have a rotation of eight to nine, eight to 10. Some guys on the outside of that have to understand that that’s the way it is today, or it is that game. But the next game could be totally different.”
CU Buffs men’s basketball vs. South Dakota
TIPOFF: Wednesday, 6 p.m. MT, Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan, Kan.
BROADCAST: TV — ESPN+ (Subscription required); Radio — 850 AM.
RECORDS (2019-20): South Dakota 20-12; Colorado 21-11.
KEY MATCHUP: The Buffs vs. 2020. Against an opponent CU should handle, it will be interesting to see what kind of energy the Buffs can generate in an empty arena away from home.
TOP PLAYERS (Top returnees with 2019-20 statistics): South Dakota — G Stanley Umude, Sr., 16.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg; G Ty Chisom, Sr., 4.0 ppg. Colorado — G McKinley Wright, Sr., 14.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.0 apg; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, Sr., 9.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg; F Evan Battey, R-Jr., 8.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, .526 field goal percentage.
NOTES: CU has won its past four season openers and is 8-2 in openers under Boyle…After opening last season with a win against Arizona State in the Pac-12’s annual game in China, this will mark the first time since 1973-74 (at Air Force) and 1974-75 (at Cal) the Buffs have opened two consecutive seasons away from home…South Dakota lost five of its top six scorers from a 20-win last season and features a roster littered with transfers and players who redshirted last season…The Coyotes were picked fifth in the preseason Summit League poll…The teams have met just once, with CU posting an 82-58 win at home two years ago. Schwartz and Battey shared the team lead in that game with 14 points apiece…Wright begins the season with 501 career assists, needing 62 to surpass Jay Humphries as the Buffs’ all-time leader. Wright also has recorded seven games with at least 10 assists, trailing Humphries’ CU record of eight…CU plays Kansas State on Friday in the teams’ first matchup since the Buffs left the Big 12 Conference following the 2010-11 season, which also was Boyle’s first year at CU.