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September 30, 2013BOULDER, Colo. - When the University of Colorado men's basketball program opened up practices today, they began preparing for one of the most, if not the most, anticipated basketball season's in the team's history.
The Buffaloes will likely enter the season in the AP Top 25 poll and feature one of the nation's premier players in Spencer Dinwiddie, a preseason contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors.
This year's group has also long been looked at as a trendy pick to possibly win the conference, despite the teams like Arizona and Oregon likely being ranked higher.
It's safe to say that the hype around the 2013-2014 season has taken on a life of its own.
But as things have changed under the Flatirons of Boulder, so too have circumstances around the conference. When Colorado joined the Pac-12 for the 2011-2012 season, the "Conference of Champions" was looking at a year that many thought could be the worst for any big-six conference, ever. Perennial powers Arizona and UCLA were down, very down. Washington, one of the league's bright spots in the last decade, finished 14-4 in conference play but still missed the NCAA Tournament due to a resume that resembled a mid-tier Mountain West Conference team rather than the Pac-12 regular season champion.
Things turned around the following year with Arizona, Oregon, California, UCLA and Colorado all making the Big Dance. The Wildcats and Ducks would make Sweet 16 runs and in-all, the Pac-12 looked to be on its way back to national relevance.
Fast-forward one more year and what was once a mocked set of schools is now looked at to be one of the top two or three conferences in the nation. As many as four programs could enter the season ranked. Recruiting has heated up with the west coast five and four-star recruits electing to stick around, as opposed to leaving town for greener pastures back east.
So while Tad Boyle and his staff have amassed a talented and experienced roster, one that has CU fans thinking of a deep tournament run come March, every other team around them has improved as well. Keeping up with the Jones' has become more and more difficult every year.
Thus, the question becomes: What are the Buffs really walking into this season?
The Pac-12, as a whole, only loses three of its top ten scorers from a year ago while also returning seven of the top 15 rebounders, five of the top ten assist men, five of the top ten in steals and six of the top ten in field goal percentage.
National pundits are talking about a National Championship in Tucson while fans in Eugene think they may have one of the nation's best starting-fives. Jahii Carson has single handedly changed the culture of Arizona State, while also becoming the favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year. Folks in Westwood expect this UCLA team to finally live up to expectations with Steve Alford at the helm and the Bay Area is giddy-as much as an area apathetic to college sports can be-for their two NCAA Tournament caliber programs. Lorenzo Romar finally has a floor general in Nigel Williams-Goss. Washington State, Oregon State, USC, and Utah all return All-Conference level players.
Point is, this should be a league that sends seven, maybe even eight, teams to the Big Dance. That's like, old-Big East good.
But before you start wondering if you've been wrong all along about this Colorado team and their ability to compete, let me explain to you why these Buffaloes are easily the best that Boyle has had to work with in Boulder. Allow me to explain to you why this team will make the NCAA Tournament and why it still could win the conference.
First of all, there is the coaching staff. Few coaches demand respect like Mike Montgomery. Few have shown the in-game mastery of Dana Altman. But even fewer, if any, have accomplished what Boyle has and against the odds that were stacked against his favor. He and his staff are wizards of pre-game preparation. They understand that to beat a quality opponent, you must first not beat yourself, meaning that the team spends much more time in prep-week focused on their own sets and precision than their opponent's.
Secondly, these Buffs have Spencer Dinwiddie, one of the country's most reliable, dynamic and lethal guards. When the game is on the line, there are few that Buffs fans should rather have.
Third is the Buffs revamped roster, recruited by puzzle-piece and not star-ranking. Boyle has found pieces that work in harmony and compliment one another in a way that makes Colorado unique from many of its peers.
Lastly, the Coors Event Center has evolved into one of the two toughest environments to play an away game.
None of this is to say that Colorado's season would be a disappointment if they finished second, third, fourth or even fifth in the conference standings. It wouldn't.
But there is no doubt that this season has the potential to be one of the most memorable and fun in quite some time around these parts.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to college basketball season. Buckle up, we're just getting started.