April 16, 2007

The Next Quick Fix?

New Colorado coach Jeff Bzdelik won't have to worry about selling his players on the benefits of the old-school style of offense he ran at Air Force.

Air Force's 84-46 shellacking at Colorado on Nov. 18 provided all the convincing needed. The Falcons turned the game into a rout from the start, racing out to a 35-11 lead by halftime.

"It was very tough," senior guard Richard Roby told Rivals.com. "You never knew who was going to help and there is so much cutting movement without the basketball that it became very confusing."

"It was the hardest offense I've ever guarded," freshman guard Xavier Silas said. "You never have time to rest. You are constantly watching for back cuts, moving and flare screens. By the time we buckled down we were down by 20 points.

"I think we have a little more talent and a little more athleticism, so if we can follow (Bzdelik's) instructions we can be even better."

That's a bold statement considering the Buffaloes are coming off a seven-win campaign that didn't include two victories in a row while the Falcons were 50-16 in Bzdelik's two seasons in Colorado Springs, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2005-06 and then making it to the NIT Final Four this past season.

But, Bzdelik, 54, has engineered one remarkably quick turnaround. Five years ago, he was named the head coach of the worst team in the NBA. After winning just 17 games in his first season, Bzdelik promptly guided the Denver Nuggets to a 26-win improvement the sixth-best in league history and their first trip to the playoffs since 1994-95.

Bzdelik also faced a tough setback when he first arrived at Air Force. Center Nick Welch, who was voted co-Mountain West Player of the Year the previous season, suffered a season-ending foot injury in the preseason. The Falcons, relying on an offense that used constant screens and movement on the perimeter, managed to get off to a 14-1 start without Welsh and finish with 24 wins.

The chance to do something similar in Boulder is what made the Colorado job so intriguing.

"What most appealed to me about this job is that I love challenges. I love the ultimate challenge," Bzdelik said. "I probably got the (Nuggets) job because nobody else wanted it. Then at Air Force we lose our so-called best player. People wrote in the Colorado Springs area that we wouldn't have a winning season. This year with our schedule of who we had to play people had their doubts too. I like when people doubt me. I understand what the Big 12 is about. I understand where CU is right now. To play in what I think is the most challenging basketball conference in the country and to take a program from here to where it should be to me is a great challenge I'm really looking forward to."

Bzdelik's optimism will be aided by the return of Roby, who represents much of that upgrade in talent and athleticism.

Nobody may have been happier to hear that Bzdelik would be Colorado's new coach than the gifted veteran, who briefly tested the NBA draft waters before returning to school for what would turn out to be a tumultuous junior year that began with coach Ricardo Patton announcing it would be his last season in Boulder.

After talking with his half-brother, Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin, who played under Bzdelik for 18 games in the 2004-05 season, Roby believes Bzdelik is the ideal candidate to replace Patton.

"Last season was a roller coaster," Roby said. "I was always hoping that (Bzdelik) would be the next coach. I talked to my brother and he said he'd be the perfect fit for our program. We are going to be a whole lot better. It's not even a question."

Bzdelik doesn't believe recruiting at the high-major level, something he has never done, will be a question either. He's counting on his longtime experience in the NBA where he also worked an assistant and scout for the Washington Bullets and Miami Heat to impress elite prospects.

"Being in the NBA is a huge asset because I can do something that other coaches can't when I go into a home," he said. "I can tell them what it takes to play in the NBA. I've been there with Wes Unseld; I've been there with Pat Riley. I've been in the NBA playoffs nine times. Players at this level and players we want to recruit, they aspire to play at the next level, and I can help them get to the next level in their preparation and development."

A clause in Bzdelik's contract, which calls for the construction of a practice facility to begin within the next three years, should aid his recruiting efforts as well.

It doesn't appear that Bzdelik will have to spend much time recruiting the players he has inherited. In Bzdelik's first team meeting, he told them they would strive to be the best conditioned and most disciplined team in the country next season.

Roby, Silas and most of their teammates are already making plans to stay on campus this summer so they can get a head-start.

"It was tough last year," Silas said. "I think we were all wondering in the back of our minds who our next coach would be. Now, there is a buzz around campus for basketball. People are asking about Coach Bzdelik. It's got everybody excited."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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