CU hasn't been to the Big Dance since 2003 and is making only its third NCAA appearance since 1970. How soon the Buffs get comfy and make themselves feel at home here Thursday night in New Mexico's fabled "Pit" will determine how long they stay. Of course, UNLV's Runnin' Rebels - NCAA regulars in the last three tournaments and five of the past six - will have some say in CU's weekend itinerary, too.
The Buffs' appetite to reach the NCAAs was large and highly visible week in their march to the Pac-12 Conference tournament championship. But that page - as glorious as it was - has been turned, leaving No. 11 seed CU (23-11) to focus on its matchup with No. 6 seed UNLV (26-8). If the Buffs can rekindle the magic - the same intensity would be nice, too - they created in the shadow of Hollywood, they could stick around awhile in this tournament.
Sophomore swingman Andre Roberson said it took a day for the Buffs' accomplishments in L.A. to sink in: "Then we got settled down. Reality just hits you. It was a great feeling, but we're not done yet. We've still got a couple of games to play. We'll be ready for them.
"Getting into the NCAA Tournament is one part, but trying to succeed and go far is another. I feel like our guys are trying to do that - not just make it but go far in it. We'll see how it goes."
On the court, this is how CU coach Tad Boyle wants it to go, by the numbers:
(1) Play solid transition defense. They aren't called the Runnin' Rebels because they prefer to walk it up court, but the Buffs can't let them run wild. UNLV averages 76.7 points a game, and depends on its transition game as a primary point producer. Said Boyle: "We have to control the tempo. It's not like we want to make it a half court game and walk it up. We want to run; we're good in transition. But UNLV is awfully good in transition, too. It's a matter of trying to exert our will and being able to run when we want to . . . and get back and take them out of transition. So it's going to be an interesting matchup."
(2) Defend the perimeter. UNLV averages 23 three-point attempts a game. The Runnin' Rebs have hit 282-of-763 from behind the arc (37.0 percent). By contrast, the Buffs have shot 218 fewer treys, hitting 187-of-545 on the year. Said Roberson of UNLV's 20-plus three-point attempts a game: "That's a lot of threes . . . they shoot a lot in transition. You've got to guard the shooters. Their one through four (positions) can shoot the ball very well. It'll be a good matchup for all of us in defending the arc."
(3) Take care of the ball - and CU did that extremely well in L.A. In their four Pac-12 tournament games, the Buffs averaged 8.5 turnovers. They stayed in single-digit turnovers in all four games, setting a school record for that stretch. Said Boyle: "They try to turn you over - and they've been pretty good at it. (UNLV's opponents have been forced into 15.6 turnovers a game.) It doesn't matter if I do or don't like (the matchup) - it's who we play. We just have to get ready to play them. We have to prepare to take care of the basketball and not let them turn us over. Their speed and athleticism in the open floor can lead to easy baskets and open threes - we have to limit that as best we can."
Boyle has been a staffer on teams (Wichita State, Tennessee, Oregon) that reached the NCAA Tournament, but this is his first appearance as a head coach. That doesn't mean he's in unfamiliar territory. "You've got to learn to win in a lot of different ways this time of year," he said. "You're going to play different teams with different style and strengths. The great thing about coming off the tournament in Los Angeles and playing four games in four days is we had quick turnarounds, so we're used to that."
UNLV is coached by Dave Rice, a former Runnin' Rebels player who was on the 1990 team that won a National Championship in Denver. Rice's resume includes 11 seasons as a UNLV assistant, but he returned to Vegas after a six-year stint at BYU, where he ultimately was the Cougars' associate head coach. He was hired last April by UNLV when Lon Kruger left for Oklahoma.
Rice was impressed by what CU did in L.A.: "You have to be tough to win four games in four days, and they certainly were that. And they won those games in different ways . . . with great defensive effort, with offensive output. So it's an impressive deal."
UNLV was 18-1 at home this season and 6-7 in road games. At neutral sites, the Runnin' Rebels were 2-0, including a 10-point win (90-80) over then-No. 1 North Carolina in November. In truth, the site - Las Vegas' Orleans Arena - was hardly neutral. UNLV lost 72-67 to New Mexico in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
The Runnin' Rebels' top scorer (14.1) and rebounder (10.6) is 6-8 sophomore Mike Moser, who has drawn comparisons to Roberson, who also averages a double-double (11.6 points, 11.1 rebounds). "It's pretty cool for a player to be compared to me, then see how people say he'll play against me," Roberson said. "It'll be a pretty good matchup."
Moser is aware of the comparisons between the two. "Yeah, definitely," he said. "I watched a lot of film this week (of Roberson). High, major talent for sure. Really crashes the boards. Just really an active player . . . he's definitely going to be a load to guard."
UCLA transfer Chace Stanback, a 6-8 senior, averages 12.7 points, and 6-3 junior Anthony Marshall averages 12.1. In addition to Stanback, the Runnin' Rebs' roster features transfers from Kansas (Quintrell Thomas) and Marquette (Reggie Smith).
Boyle took his team to Del Norte High School for a lengthy practice Wednesday afternoon, but the workout wasn't one of the Buffs' best. "Our practices (since returning to Boulder from L.A.) haven't been very good, to be frank," he said. "But this time of year, as a coach, you sometimes have to brush that off . . . you never know if you're doing too much or too little."
Boyle is hopeful that enough CU fans make the 475-mile trip from the Denver/Boulder area to offset what is expected to be a large UNLV presence in "The Pit." Also, 110 members of the student "C-Unit" will be at the game, paying $50 each for transportation and accommodations. The group had 50 members at the Pac-12 tournament, but they traveled at the expense of the athletic department. All schools playing here received just under 500 tickets, and CU had not trouble selling its allotment.
"I don't think the (selection) committee was trying to do CU a favor, but the fact we are in Albuquerque works out for our fans, especially our students who want to make a road trip out of it," Boyle said. "I just want them to be safe on the way down and I'd like to make their stay an extended one - not be a one-and-done type deal."
With its MWC affiliation and its annual appearance here, UNLV is hopeful New Mexico fans side with the Runnin' Rebels. Said Rice: "We certainly the Lobos fans wear their red and come support the red team."
Boyle doesn't see Albuquerque's altitude - which is roughly the same as Boulder's - as a major factor for any of the participants. But if it translates into any kind of small advantage for the Buffs, then so be it. "It could help us, but you'd better not be relying on altitude to win a game for you this time of year," he said. "But it certainly helps us because we're used to it. UNVL (plays) at what, 2,000 feet? I don't see that as a big factor, but every little bit helps."
His approach for the NCAA Tournament is just as it was for the conference tournament. "We're going to talk about it being tournament basketball, just like Los Angeles was tournament basketball," Boyle said. "We've played against quality programs in our league and in our non-conference. So UNLV's another one of those. It's just another game - a different tournament and it's win-or-go-home. Our guys aren't going to be intimidated by the stage or the bright lights. We've just got to limit the distractions and handle them as we go about our business."
Added Roberson: "I think anything can happen now . . . you've seen it in the past. It's March Madness. Everybody can beat everybody. I just feel like we have to come out and play aggressive for 40 minutes and get after it. Then we'll have a good shot."