Colorado’s 2015-’16 season is already off to a less-than-desirable start. The Buffs, coming off a disappointing 16-18 finish a season ago, lost senior swing man Xavier Johnson to an Achilles’ tendon injury Wednesday.
Head coach Tad Boyle was not definitive about the duration of Johnson’s injury, telling Buff Zone, “the timetable is pretty broad, so we’re not ruling out Xavier’s return next year.”
However, the best-case scenario for an injury so debilitating for the movements necessary to play basketball at the highest means the Buffs will be without Johnson throughout the nonconference slate and deep into Pac-12 Conference play.
Colorado has been on a continuously slide dating to midway through the 2013-’14 season. After two seasons in the hunt for the Pac-12 title, including winning the conference tournament championship in 2012, star Spencer Dinwiddie’s injury midway through the 2013-’14 campaign doomed Colorado to losses in five of their final 11 games, including an embarrassing 77-48 blowout against Pittsburgh in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament.
Good news for Boyle, in need of a bounce-back after the worst season in his tenure at Colorado: Losing Johnson before the season allows the Buffs to structure their identity around not having the versatile guard-forward in the lineup from the outset, whereas the midseason loss of Dinwiddie forced them to adjust on the fly.
The bad news? Colorado now prepares for this pivotal season — one in which several of its Pac-12 counterparts are making strides to improve — without two of its top three scorers from a season ago. Guard Askia Booker graduated, leaving big man Josh Scott as the clear focal point of the 2015-’16 Buffs’ season.
Scott quietly had one of the best individual campaigns of any low-post player in the Pac-12, averaging 14.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and a little over one blocked shot per game, all while shooting a healthy 54 percent from the field. Colorado also returns fellow interior player Wesley Gordon, a reliable rebounder and aggressive defender in the paint who Boyle will look to as a more dangerous offensive option in 2015-’16.
“[Boyle] wants me to get more shots because of my efficiency,” Gordon told Brian Howell of Buff Zone. “I want to. I think it’s best for the team if I start taking on more of a leadership role and have a bigger role on the team.”
Gordon was deemed Colorado’s X-factor in 2013-’14 for his defensive tenacity, which last season resulted in a team-leading 47 blocks. While anything he could provide offensively was something of a bonus, it now becomes a high priority.
What Colorado loses in Johnson is offensive spark — not always the most reliable offensive spark, as Johnson was prone to lapses. But when he heated up, he did so like a microwave. In a near-upset of in-state rival Colorado State, Johnson scored 20 points on a remarkable 70 percent shooting.
He struggled to regain that touch in Pac-12 play, but that explosiveness is a quality opposing defenses had to account for.
Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who was injured at the same time as Dinwiddie in 2013-’14, matured into a reliable option over the course of conference play, scoring in double-figures five times after the league slate started.
With a similar body type and ability to both attack and rim and shoot the 3-pointer, Fletcher is prime to fill Johnson’s void. If he can develop into a reliable scorer, Colorado may even see an improvement over the lulls Johnson was prone to.