Pac-12 hoops preview: Colorado primed for contention with star guard at helm

After losing to Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, Cal was selected as a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears will face South Florida in the play-in game on Wednesday.
Marcus Gedai/Staff
After losing to Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, Cal was selected as a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears will face South Florida in the play-in game on Wednesday.

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Take yourself back to January and try to remember all the noise surrounding Arizona and Arizona State. Entering the new year, both squads were ranked in the top 15 — the Wildcats possessing future first-overall pick Deandre Ayton and the Sun Devils firing off 12 straight wins to start the season.

Then, Colorado happened. The Buffaloes didn’t start the first week of the year by beating one of the Arizona teams — they beat both in nail-biting fashion.

At the center of those victories, as well as Colorado’s upcoming season, is the program’s dynamic point guard, sophomore McKinley Wright IV.

Despite being Colorado’s shortest player, Wright spent an entire season driving home the message that it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

Wright put together one of the finest freshman seasons in program history, averaging 14.2 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. With 175 assists as a freshman, Wright set the freshman record for dimes in a season.

That performance convincingly earned him a spot on the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, as well as an All-Pac-12 Team and All-Defensive Team honorable mention.

There isn’t much Wright didn’t do in his first season, serving as the primary ballhandler and scorer on offense and hounding opposing point guards on defense. But his most impressive work comes down low among the trees.

At only 6’0”, Wright totaled 52 offensive rebounds last year, only second to the 56 that 6’6” forward George King inhaled last year. In thet aforementioned upset against Arizona State, Wright grabbed an offensive rebound in overtime and put it back up for the bucket, plus the foul.

Wright was so proficient in grabbing offensive rebounds that Colorado revamped its rebounding strategy.

There are some areas where Wright still stands to improve, namely shooting threes and cutting down on turnovers, but these are the typical ailments of young guards in college. Should he continue to build on his solid debut season, a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team may be in the immediate future.

Of concern for Colorado is the loss of the aforementioned King, who put together his most well-rounded season before being drafted by the Phoenix Suns in June. Whether it be scoring or rebounding, spacing or defense, there were few instances in which King failed to make an impact on the game.

Another Buffalo heading for greener pastures is guard Dominique Collier, never quite the breakout star but a solid reserve who was consistently good for about 20 minutes a night and a 3-pointer or two.

In spite of the departures of King and Collier, Colorado will be returning much of last year’s roster, which bodes well for next season.

Among the notable returners are sophomores Tyler Bey and Dallas Walton, junior Lucas Siewert and senior Namon Wright.

Of that quartet, Bey seems most primed for a breakout season. The forward began last season on the bench but thrived when he was inserted into the starting lineup in late December.

There was a notable discrepancy in Bey’s performance between his stats coming off the bench and competing as a starter. Before being promoted, he averaged 4.0 points and 3.9 rebounds on 44.8 percent shooting in 15.3 minutes per game. After the promotion, he bumped those figures up to 7.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 51.7 percent shooting in 22.0 minutes per contest.

In addition to retaining much of their roster, the Buffaloes will welcome junior transfer Shane Gatling into the fray, along with a trio of relatively low-ranked prospects.

Similar to Charles Jones Jr. of Utah, Gatling was one of the NJCAA’s premiere players at Indian Hills Community College, earning both NJCAA Division I and NABC All-America honors and being named the Region XI Player of the Year as a sophomore.

With the budding duo of Wright and Bey set to run the show in Denver, Colorado has the makings of a potential contender in the Pac-12.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.