With the addition of five-star freshman Cody Williams, are the Colorado Buffaloes back?
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The hype train in Boulder isn’t just limited to Deion Sanders’s football team, as the Basketball Buffs are also getting some preseason love. Tad Boyle has established a pretty high floor for the Buffaloes, recording just 1 losing season in his 13 years at the helm, but many are expecting this upcoming season to provide at least an NCAA tournament bid.
Last year was a rollercoaster of results, from the very start of the season to the end. The Buffs lost to Grambling in the second game of the season, (a very good SWAC team but still an unacceptable result for Colorado) and then went out and beat #11 Tennessee just two days later. Then, the next game featured an embarrassing loss to UMass. That was followed, of course, by a win over #24 Texas A&M the very next day.
The rest of the season went similarly, with a solid 68-41 win over Oregon directly following a dreadful loss against then-1-13 Cal. (Cal would finish 3-29.) Entering the Pac-12 tournament 16-15 and needing a handful of wins to reach the tournament, they beat Washington in the first round before losing to UCLA in the quarterfinals. An NIT bid was given (earned is questionable) and the Buffs beat Seton Hall before losing to Utah Valley to end their season.
Two big reasons, however, are responsible for the preseason hype from the press. One is the highest-rated recruit in the online database era for the Buffs, five-star Cody Williams, brother of Jalen. The other is the return of both forward Tristan da Silva and point guard KJ Simpson. Those three will occupy 60% of the starting lineup, while the other 40% will likely be former TCU center Eddie Lampkin Jr. and returnee Julian Hammond III, with J’Vonne Hadley coming off the bench first.
Senior Luke O’Brien will also play an extended role as a stretch big, and he can shoot from outside occasionally. After that, however, Colorado’s depth is extremely thin. Including star recruit Cody Williams, 6 of 13 Buffaloes this season will have yet to play a single minute of college basketball. Unfortunately, guard Javon Ruffin was lost for the season with a knee injury, which now means 50% of the roster has no college experience.
Other true freshmen include Assane Diop, Courtney Anderson, and Bangot Dak, while RJ Smith and Joe Hurlburt will make their college debuts after redshirting last season. While relying on underclassmen to line the rotation isn’t uncommon with tournament teams such as Kansas, Duke, and especially Kentucky, it typically occurs when a freshman class is phenomenal or filled with college-ready prospects. Neither criterion fits the Buffs. Sure, Williams is a five-star, but he doesn’t project as a one-and-done and needs further development and muscle growth. All of the other freshmen were ranked as three-star prospects, and while it’s possible that one or two outplay their rankings and contribute plenty, expecting this class of freshmen to carry the bulk of non-starter minutes for a Power 6 team, especially a team that is coming into the season with considerable hype, is an unrealistic burden to place upon them.
Assane Diop and Bangot Dak will likely have to put on weight to become rotational paint pieces, and Smith and Hurlburt are unknowns when it comes to predicting how they’ll perform against a D-1 college opponent. While they’ll all play, (there’s no way Colorado could survive on just a 7-8 man rotation, right?) if there is a freshman to watch out for in terms of being physically and technically ready for being a reliable rotational piece, it is Courtney Anderson. The 6-5, 180 guard could be a remedy to the often-poor outside shooting rates that the Buffs put up last season. Especially considering the losses of Javon Ruffin and Ethan Wright, this team needs shooting help, and Anderson could help right away.
The starting 5 should be amongst the conference’s best, but that group still comes with questions. Lampkin has had a very tumultuous past 6 months, including a very public feud with the program he used to be a part of. Amongst other things, he had dealt with the death of his brother, which may have contributed to his leaving the TCU team prior to the conference tournament. Hopefully, he is in a better place mentally with the change of scenery being extremely helpful for him. When he was on the court, he was a very serviceable option at the 5 spot, and was an excellent rebounder, placing 2nd in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding percentage behind just David McCormack. If he is able to play and find his niche in the Colorado program, he should be an upgrade over Lawson Lovering, even if he isn’t on a short list of top centers in the conference.
Shooting guard could be a positional question mark, as Julian Hammond III or J’Vonne Hadley could occupy the spot on occasion. Hammond will likely start as one of the better three-point shooters on the squad, (Hadley didn’t make a single three last year) but Hadley provides a physical, rebounding guard presence. He actually led the team in rebounds last year, even with 7-footer Lawson Lovering starting too. Hadley also was a net positive on the defensive side and is the returning leader in block percentage and second in steal percentage. Hammond or Hadley could start at the two, Hadley especially if perimeter offense isn’t a concern but Hammond is likely if the team is in need of outside shooting.
KJ Simpson returns as one of two leading scorers from last season to man the point guard spot, and he’ll need to be more consistent if the Colorado offense is to improve. The 6-2 guard was 2nd to last on the team with a 44.2 eFG%, and he took the most threes on the team (4.6 3PA per game) but only connected at a 27.6% rate, not a recipe for success, especially in today’s game. While he paced the team with 3.8 APG, he also led the team with 2.6 TOPG, and he’ll need to take care of the ball if the Buffs want to make the tournament, especially with such a youthful roster. His 81.7 FT% suggests he could improve from beyond the arc, but if he doesn’t, he’ll need to slow down his shooting volume. What’s odd was his decline as the season went on from that aspect. From Dec. 21 to Feb. 26, Simpson shot 12-69 from distance, a 17.4 3P%. Stretches of shooting like that won’t help the Buffs this year, but it’s Simpson or bust. There’s not a solidified backup option for him, so Colorado is relying on him to make another jump in production, and, more importantly, efficiency.
The 6-8 freshman Williams will grab the starting spot at the small forward position from day one, and even if there are growing pains, he’ll provide a much-needed boost at the wing. He’s able to distribute a little, but his main skill as of right now remains the ability to score within the arc. He has a long way to go before he reaches his ceiling, but his floor is already quite high.
Tristan da Silva might be the only proven, reliable option on this offense. Despite his height at 6’9, he shot the three ball well (39.6%) at a solid volume, (3.9 attempts per game) and also showed the ability to score inside the arc as well, shooting 54.5% from two. Limiting fouls at just 1.9 per game in 30.9 MPG, da Silva might be the best power forward in the last year of the Pac-12. A very fluid big man, he was 2nd on the team with 1.3 SPG.
If there’s a silver lining with the cupcake non-conference schedule, it’s that it will provide an opportunity for the underclassmen to get adjusted to the college game. If there’s literally any other lining involved, it’s bad. The second-best matchup on the calendar might be Rick Pitino-less Iona, and the only game in which the Buffs are likely to be underdogs is a game against Miami, who did lose Isaiah Wong in the offseason. Other than that, Richmond and Grambling are on the schedule, which is ok, I suppose. Grambling beat them last year of course, so maybe that’s circled on the Buffs’ calendar. The non-conference schedule is lacking enough to the point where the Buffaloes could go 12-0 and still miss the tournament. There’s enough for one Quad 1 win on the non-Pac-12 schedule, which isn’t a good look for a team that wants to make the big dance.
Ultimately, this is a very top-heavy team that either lacks depth, experience, or both. Half of the roster hasn’t played a second of college basketball, and only a single transfer was brought into a 18-17 team. The addition of Cody Williams is great, but he’s more in the mold of a year-two breakout type of five-star rather than an immediate #1 option on a tournament team type of five-star. KJ Simpson has a very high ceiling when it comes to building this offense, but Colorado can write off any postseason aspirations if he goes 12-69 from deep in a multi-month stretch again like the end of last season. He’s got to be more careful with the ball in his hands as well.
Tristan da Silva is huge for this team, and he’ll be asked to carry a big portion of the Colorado offense. It’s entirely possible that he improves his 15.9 PPG average into the 17-19 PPG range. Eddie Lampkin is a good pickup at center, but there’s limited depth behind him and he might be asked to average more than 6 PPG this year. If Julian Hammond can break out and provide 10+ PPG for this team, it’ll be huge for the tournament hopes, but it’s integral to keep J’Vonne Hadley on the court for 25+ MPG in order to have a solid backcourt defensive stopper on the floor.
It’s worth repeating again, but an 18-17 team with the #33 recruiting class in the country is about to start a season with half the roster having zero seconds of college experience and a single addition from the transfer portal. For a team that was statistically middling in most aspects and worse than middling in some, they didn’t change much. Their biggest problem was scoring from the perimeter, and while bringing in Cody Williams is great, it doesn’t help that at all. In fact, with Javon Ruffin out for the year and Ethan Wright transferring out, it’s likely this team actually got worse at shooting from deep. If Tristan da Silva doesn’t have a superstar-esque season, it’s worth wondering if this team even makes the tournament, especially with such thin depth.
None of the problems from last year were addressed, and this team essentially moved from NIT contender to NIT contender with a fancy little bow on top. Around a 22-8 record is attainable, but only because of a cupcake non-con schedule. Another 18-17 record with a hot seat for Boyle is highly possible.
Click here to learn more about our preseason top 100 teams heading into the 2023-24 college basketball season.
Head coach: Tad Boyle (18th season, 14th at Colorado)
2022-23 record: 18-17 (8-12)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to Utah Valley, 81-69, in NIT Second Round
Notable departures: Lawson Lovering (Transferred to Utah), Nique Clifford (Transferred to Colorado State) Jalen Gabbidon (Graduated), Ethan Wright (Graduated)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Grambling (Nov. 10), vs. Richmond (Nov. 20, Daytona Beach), vs. Iona (Nov. 26), vs. Miami-Fla (Dec. 10, Brooklyn)
PG: KJ Simpson (6-2, 187, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.5 SPG
SG: Julian Hammond III (6-3, 190, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 6.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.0 APG
SF: Cody Williams (6-8, 180, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 4 rated recruit
PF: Tristan da Silva (6-9, 229, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 39.4 3P%
C: Eddie Lampkin Jr. (6-11, 263, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 6.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.2 APG (TCU)
6: J’Vonne Hadley (6-6, 206, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 8.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 SPG
7: Luke O’Brien (6-8, 210, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 6.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.0 APG
8: Courtney Anderson (6-5, 180, Fr.)
247Sports Composite 3-star recruit
9: Assane Diop (6-10, 200, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 158 rated recruit
10: RJ Smith (6-4, 185, Rs.-Fr.)
247Sports Composite 3-star recruit (Class of 2022)
11: Bangot Dak (6-9, 180, Fr.)
247Sports Composite 3-star recruit
12: Joe Hurlburt (6-11, 232, Rs.-Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 166 rated recruit (Class of 2022)
Colorado Buffaloes MVP: Tristan da Silva
Trista da Silva, the best player on the Colorado roster last season, will be the best player on the roster again this year. Again, despite his height, (6-9) he has shown to be a very good perimeter option as well as a threat down low. Having a big man be able to consistently shoot threes creates a dream spacing scenario for any college offense. That’s when you know a player is valuable when he helps the team immensely without even having to touch the ball.
Also solid on the defensive end, he placed 9th in the Pac-12 last season in SPG, as well as 11th in defensive win shares. He improved greatly between his sophomore and junior years, as despite an increase in MPG (28.3 to 30.9) da Silva dropped his fouls per game rate from 2.4 in 2021-22 (17th in the conference) to just 1.9 last season. His 3PT% improved from 37.3% to 39.4%, and despite an increase in shot volume (7.0 attempts to 12.1 attempts) his shooting percentage and efficiency both increased. His eFG% and TS% both ranked in the top five in the Pac-12 last season, and he could very well improve even more this season.
da Silva is so integral to this Buffalo team, and they wouldn’t sniff tournament contention without him. If the German forward can increase his numbers again this year, there is a very real chance he will earn a selection in the NBA draft in the summer.
Colorado Buffaloes make-or-break player: Cody Williams
Williams is the most decorated recruit to join Colorado since Chauncey Billups. The brother of Oklahoma City Thunder player Jalen Williams, Cody is listed at 6-8, 180, and he’ll start on the wing on day one with the Buffs. Given the physicality of Power 6 basketball, it’s unlikely that he’ll jump off the scene immediately with his relatively thin frame. With that noted, he’s still more than capable of being a very solid third or even second option for the Buffaloes this season.
Very much more so of an interior option inside rather than an outside threat, Williams did excel against competition during the past year in getting to the rim and was a capable paint scorer. While he isn’t physically imposing in terms of being a pound-for-pound interior presence, he does have great physical length and a very high physical ceiling once he gets into a college weight room.
Given that the non-conference schedule is not much of a challenge for the Buffaloes, Williams will have several opportunities to adjust his game to the college level before entering conference games. Much like da Silva, Williams is crucial to this team. They wouldn’t be a projected tournament team without Williams, and even if he does take months or even a year to adjust to the college game completely, he’s still the third option on this team at worst and first-round talent in the draft at best.
Key analytics: Opponent blocks/steals per game
The amount of Buffalo shots being blocked last year was concerning. Opponents sent back an average of 4.0 BPG, good enough to rank 342nd in the nation out of 363 teams. In key losses last year for Colorado, they could simply not stop getting blocked. Against Southern Cal in January, the Buffs had 9 shots blocked in a 68-61 loss. Just two (2!) days later, not even having to leave Los Angeles, Colorado had 11 shots blocked by UCLA. Jaime Jaquez Jr. had 5 blocks just by himself. An embarrassing loss to UMass saw the Minutemen block 8 shots. Overall, Colorado had 8 games in which they allowed 6+ blocks and went 1-7 in those contests.
Now, is this stat completely indicative of whether a team is of quality or not? Not necessarily. After all, Memphis and TCU, both of whom allowed even more BPG than Colorado, made the tournament. Getting a shot blocked is naturally less worrisome than getting a pass stolen since a team can just grab the ball back as opposed to a sure change of possession and possible fast break opportunity with a steal. Unfortunately for the Buffs, they weren’t particularly good at limiting turnovers, either, placing 300th in opponent steals per game with 7.11 per game.
Shot selection was to blame for blocked shots, and every starter besides PG KJ Simpson all stood above 6-5. It wasn’t a case of a smaller team simply getting dominated inside, Colorado just couldn’t space the floor and create separation on offense. This year, especially as the team’s starters shrink by a couple of inches on the wings and backcourt, the floor spacing of the Buffaloes will become crucial to the team’s success. Not just to prevent shots from being sent back, but to also open passing lanes and limit the amount of turnovers produced by the Buffs. (Both Simpson and da Silva averaged 2.0 TOPG or more.)
Improving the offense that ranked 267th out of 363 teams in offensive rating is paramount to this team’s success, and it looks like it’ll have to come internally. Williams will help prevent the team from getting blocked down low, and da Silva is a strong candidate to not get many of his shots sent back. Julian Hammond III is a name to watch in this aspect, as he might grow into the team’s best perimeter shooting option. That’ll create space for others as the Buffaloes spread the ball amongst the outside.
If the Colorado Buffaloes can drop their opponent’s BPG to 3.0 per game, a 25% decrease, it’ll likely place them around 200th nationally, which isn’t good but also isn’t nearly as bad as last year. Eddie Lampkin could be huge in this aspect as he is physical enough (6-11, 263) to force his way to the rim. In terms of limiting opponent steals, it begins and ends with KJ Simpson. If he takes care of the ball this year, all is well. If he doesn’t, then some issues from last year might turn their head yet again. Getting to 6.0 opponent steals per game is an attainable number, (that’s just one less turnover per game from Simpson) and it would place the Buffs around 130-150th nationally, again not the best but still nowhere close to last year.
Colorado Buffaloes 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 3rd in the Pac-12
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Round of 32 Exit