BOULDER - The Colorado women's basketball team took an epic step forward this season, but the NCAA Tournament brings a trip back in time - at least in terms of the Buffaloes' first opponent.
CU is matched against former Big Eight/12 Conference foe Kansas in its first game on Saturday at the Coors Events Center. The Buffs (25-6) are a fifth seed, the Jayhawks (18-13) a 12th seed. A win would send CU against the winner of Saturday's No. 4 South Carolina vs. No. 13 South Dakota on Monday night at the CEC. The Gamecocks and Jackrabbits tip off at 2:10 p.m. Saturday, the Buffs and Jayhawks at 4:40 p.m.
"I'm excited to play a Big 12 opponent; we spent a lot of years in the Big 12 and the Big Eight," said coach Linda Lappe, who in her third season guided the Buffs to their first NCAA Tournament appearance 2004 and the 13th in school history.
Lappe initially believed another former Big Eight/12 conference foe - Nebraska - might wind up matched against her team. She said she was "excited for that opportunity (but) Kansas is going to be a tough opponent; I think anybody who makes it into the NCAA is going to be high level competition."
During their final years in the Big 12, the Jayhawks had the Buffs' number - a 7-1 record against them in their last eight meetings. In Lappe's first season (2010-11) at CU, KU won all three games (two regular season, one postseason tournament).
CU senior guard Chucky Jeffery can recall KU's domination before the Buffs said goodbye and headed for the Pac-12.
"Oh yeah, we remember," Jeffery said at a Selection Show gathering Monday afternoon. "As soon as our name and Kansas came up on the screen, we all looked at each other like, 'This is our time right here'. So we're excited to have them come and play on our home floor, it's definitely going to be a good game.
"I think, like coach Lappe said, we are a better team on our home floor so they (Kansas) can bring as many fans as they need, but I think we are going to have a pretty good turnout and play well."
The Buffs were one of four Pac-12 teams to make the NCAA Tournament, joining Stanford, California and UCLA. Those teams were responsible for CU's five conference losses, with the Cardinal ousting the Buffs from the league's postseason tournament. Stanford is a No. 1 seed, Cal a No. 2 and UCLA a No. 3.
Lappe said her team's seeding in the 64-team field was near what she anticipated: "We were expecting a five or six, right in that area, so we're happy with that. The committee took a look at what we did all season long and I felt like that was a great seed with the wins we were able to get and having no bad losses.
"I know the committee takes a lot of things into consideration so you never quite know where you are going to be, but we are happy with that seed. It shows the committee gives us a lot of respect."
The Buffs' 25 wins are the women's program's most since the 1995-96 team finished 26-9. CU's all-time NCAA Tournament record is 17-12, which includes an 8-2 mark in first-round games (9-3 in opening games, reflecting two first-round byes).
When Boulder was chosen for a first-round site, CU's goal was to be included in the four-team field. Lappe called playing at the CEC, where her team was 15-0 this season, "a huge advantage; it's a place we've had success all year, we've had great fan support. Being able to have our fans come out and support us, I think it is going to be one of the best first and second round games in terms of attendance that you are going to find out there.
"I think having that support always helps you, but you can't take that for granted, you still have to come out and you still have to play well. But to be able to sleep in our own beds and to be in our comfort zones and not have to travel will be something that really helps us out, and obviously I like the altitude as well."
By the time they tip off in Saturday's first game, the Buffs will be on the last day of a 14-day break. They haven't played since March 9, when they lost 61-47 to Stanford in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament in Seattle.
Lappe said the layoff can be viewed in "a few different ways. We've used it as some time to get some rest, and get some time away, so I think that is going to be very beneficial for us. I think we feel good, our legs are going to feel great. Obviously there's that period of time if you have a long layoff where you haven't competed, but we have practiced hard, we have a great group of practice guys that come in everyday and help us out.
"The most important part is what we do this week. This week will be like any normal week, we have four days to practice and then we will be getting ready to play on Saturday, so it's a pretty typical week in terms of what were used to in the Pac-12."
Jeffery, the team's leading scorer (13.9 ppg) and rebounder (8.3 rpg), will close out her home career with an NCAA appearance she's dreamed of.
"It means a lot," she said. "It just shows how far we have come as a program, and how great the coaches have been at turning it around. And it's all a tribute to my team, we have good players and we play together and we've had a great season. It's just really satisfying to go out as a senior like this, and I just want to thank my teammates and my coaches for that."
In the days preceding Monday's Selection Show, Jeffery and the Buffs engaged in their own "bracketology" and tried to determine who they might play and the other two teams that would land at the CEC.
"We've been trying to figure that out for a long time, looking at the brackets and stuff like that, but you can't really know," she said. "We were way off (on their projections), we thought we were going to be up with Notre Dame, but we were off. We're excited though."
If the Buffs win their two home games, the Irish still could be in their future. Notre Dame is the No. 1 seed in the Norfolk bracket but plays its opening games in Iowa City. CU and Notre Dame would play in a Sweet 16 game on March 30.
The Buffs reaching the NCAA Tournament has caused a quandary for the family of CU redshirt freshman forward Arielle Roberson. Her brother, Andre, is a junior forward on the CU men's team, which plays Illinois Friday in Austin, Texas, in the men's tournament.
In high school in San Antonio, Arielle said she and Andre competed in the playoffs at the same time, creating a similar dilemma in the Roberson family. She called this week's NCAA play at different sites "a great opportunity for both (of us), but it's another competition in the family - who's coming to who's game."
Maybe this is what they can hope for: Arielle and the CU women win two in Boulder and advance to Norfolk, Va.; Andre and the CU men win two in Austin and advance to Washington, D.C. That's close enough for a close family to commute.