Eric Gay/Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas – For 50 years, Colorado usually could be dismissed as a program floating around the backwaters of college basketball.
Since coach Tad Boyle arrived in 2010, Colorado sure looks like a program on the rise.
Boyle has led Colorado to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1962-63, and the No. 12-seed Buffs (21-11) are a trendy early-round upset pick when they face No. 7 seed Illinois (22-12) today in the East Regional.
“We’re the pretty girl right now,” Colorado forward Spencer Dinwiddie said Thursday. “Everybody wants to pick us.”
Colorado wouldn’t have been anyone’s pick until Boyle arrived from Northern Colorado. Since then, the Buffaloes have averaged 23 wins. Last season they stormed through the Pac-12 tournament to win an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, then snagged an opening-round win over UNLV.
Energized by that experience, Colorado earned an at-large bid to this season’s NCAA Tournament after a solid 10-8 finish in the Pac-12.
Everything, Dinwiddie said, is going just like Boyle promised.
“When coach was recruiting me, he talked about wanting to build Colorado into a perennial Top 25 program. I think you see the strides that we’re making toward that,” Dinwiddie said. “And we are just going to get better.”
Boyle, a former Kansas player, is building Colorado’s foundation on players like Dinwiddie, a forward from California who led the team in scoring, and Texan Andre Roberson, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year who ranks second nationally in rebounds with 11.3 per game.
Roberson grew up in San Antonio, about 75 miles south of Austin and was passed over by the major programs in the Lone Star State until he already had decided to take his game to the Rocky Mountains.
“I was kind of a late bloomer. The Texas schools didn’t come in until late,” Roberson said. “I took it as a sign of disrespect.”
For Boyle, attracting talent such as Roberson and Dinwiddie took making a hard sell on what Colorado could be, not what it was. Colorado had been to the NCAA Tournament just 10 times between 1940 and 2011.
“We sell the opportunity to come and make your mark on a program and leave your stamp on a program and build a legacy,” Boyle said.
Comparing basketball pedigrees with Illinois isn’t even close.
The Illini have been to the NCAA Tournament 30 times, 11 since 2000. Illinois missed last season’s tournament but returns with a senior-laden lineup under first-year coach John Groce.
The Illini burst through a 12-0 start that included winning the Maui Invitational and a win over Gonzaga, the team that entered the NCAA tournament at the top seed in the West Region and ranked No. 1.
The schedule got much tougher when the Big Ten season started in January. After a 2-7 start in league play, Illinois rallied to an 8-10 finish and enters the NCAA Tournament having lost three of their last four games.
The mid-season slide brought out a lot of “doubters and haters,” coach John Groce said. “They stayed the course. I appreciate the way they fought.”
With that kind of up-and-down season, Illinois players displayed little of the positive energy Colorado did during the teams’ pregame NCAA news conferences Thursday.
Dinwiddie talked about the momentum surrounding the Colorado program and the chase to “win it all.” Illinois guard D.J. Richardson noted Friday’s game “could possibly be our last” and the team wants to “come out and fight and have fun.”
While that could come across as a sense of doom from Illini players, it could also be a quiet confidence from a team that had to slug its way through the nation’s toughest conference to get here.
“We know we can play with anybody in this tournament,” Illinois forward Tyler Griffey said. “We have had some big moments and big games and big wins, but we have had some low points too. I think we have learned from all of those experiences, and we are going to use them to our advantage.”