BOULDER, Colo. (AP) – When Colorado coach Tad Boyle draws up Xs and Os this season, he will actually have “X.”
Xavier Johnson, the do-everything player who’s known simply as “X” to his teammates, returns to the court after missing last season with a torn left Achilles tendon. He’s one of four fifth-year seniors trying to lead the Buffaloes to their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons.
Not just lead them there, either.
“Elite Eight, at least,” said Johnson, who’s 10 points away from becoming the 33rd player in Buffaloes history to reach the 1,000-point mark. “I think we can do it, if we play together.”
Just don’t mention such chatter in front of Boyle.
“If I had to describe our team in one word, it would be overrated,” Boyle said. “We’re not consistent enough to be considered an upper-tier Pac-12 team right now. That’s today, October whatever. We’re a work in progress.”
Under Boyle, the Buffaloes have gone from a team that rarely competed for a conference title to one that’s consistently near the top. His squad was 22-12 last season and returns an experienced nucleus in seniors Josh Fortune and Wesley Gordon, along with junior George King and Dominique Collier. Not only that, but Johnson is rounding back into top form and Derrick White, a Division II All-American transfer from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, makes his black-and-gold debut.
But there’s also this: Replacing Josh Scott, one of the best big men in Buffs history.
“Can we replace his leadership? I’m not sure of that right now,” Boyle said. “The only way to find out is when adversity hits.”
Gordon is raising his hand to be that quiet leader. And Johnson wants to be more of the vocal director. He’s anxious to get going after tearing his Achilles while working out in April 2015.
Johnson nearly made it back before the end of last season, but decided against it because, “I didn’t want to go out there and half-step stuff and not play to my fullest.”
Things to know before Colorado’s season opener against Sacramento State on Nov. 11:
THE TRANSFER: Boyle isn’t one to typically hype up a player. With White, he made an exception.
“All I can say is he’s worth the price of admission,” Boyle said.
White scored 1,912 points and had 343 assists for Colorado-Colorado Springs, before transferring to Boulder and sitting out last season. He made the switch to see what he could accomplish on the Division I level.
“It was hard to leave the program that did everything for me,” White said. “There are always doubters who say, ‘You can’t play. You did a lot at Division II but it was Division II.’ Prove those doubters wrong.”
THE YOUNGSTERS: Colorado has five freshmen on the roster, including 6-foot-4 guard Bryce Peters out of La Puente, California. He averaged 22 points his senior year.
“The freshmen are certainly going to help us infuse some energy and talent,” Boyle said. “But how much are they going to contribute? How many minutes are they going to get? We’re in a nice situation because we don’t have to count on them, but whatever they give us is almost like a B-12 shot in the arm.”
WEIGHT & SEE: Johnson spent quite a bit of time in the weight room as he mended from his torn Achilles. He went from benching 185 pounds 12 times before his injury to 19 reps of that same weight.
“It helped me get into a pro body so I can play against bigger, stronger players,” Johnson said.
HUDDLE UP: In years past, the football team was scuffling at this point and the talk around campus turned to hoops. Not this season. The Buffs are competing for a Pac-12 title and that success on the football field inspires the basketball players.
“It’s exciting and makes us want to do the same,” said Collier, who led the team in assists and steals last season.
KING OF THE CORNER: King was voted the league’s most improved player after leading the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage. He was 68 of 149 from behind the 3-point line.
“He is a good player. We all know that,” Boyle said. “Now, what does it take to become a great player? Great players make those around them better. That’s George’s challenge now.”
– By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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