BOULDER – History was made Sunday at 4:02 p.m. MDT, and it was made faster than you could blurt March Madness.
Two minutes into CBS’ Selection Sunday telecast, the University of Colorado men’s basketball team was announced as an at-large entry in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, marking an historic third consecutive time the Buffaloes have qualified for the Big Dance. Two other CU men’s teams had reached the tournament in consecutive seasons (1954-55, 1962-63).
On Sunday afternoon at Boyle’s spacious Boulder home, there was no prolonged suspense, no gut-wrenching wait, to see who the Buffs would be playing and where. Mere seconds after top-ranked Florida was announced as the tournament’s No. 1 seed and would stay in the South Region, “Colorado” popped up on the flat screen in Boyle’s den and his players whooped, whistled and breathed collective sighs of relief not issued until well into previous selection shows.
Seeded No. 8 in the South, CU plays No. 9 Pittsburgh on Thursday (11:40 a.m. MDT, TBS) in Orlando, Fla. The CU-Pitt winner most likely catches Florida in the next round in what is tantamount to a home game for the talented Gators.
“Since I’ve been here it’s always been drawn out a little bit, whether it be 30 minutes or 40 minutes, whatever the case,” junior guard Askia Booker said of CU’s NCAA destiny being determined so quickly. “It’s kind of a relief to hear your name called in the first 60 seconds almost . . . you’re playing a great team to begin with and if you’re fortunate enough to win you’re playing the No. 1 team in the country. Yeah, it’s a relief but then you get back on your toes and prepare.”
“You never know,” Boyle said of Sunday’s sudden selection. “What we’ve been through the last couple of years . . . you go back three years ago – we never saw that one coming (with CU’s exclusion). Then the next year we know we’re in (after winning the Pac-12 tournament), then last year was a little stressful. I think we were in the fourth segment of the show – and there were four segments. It got a little stressful last year. But to have it pop up right away . . . yeah, it was a relief.”
“Last year it was a long process,” added sophomore forward Xavier Johnson. “We were here for a while and got tired. But I was glad to see it went quickly and that we got what we deserved – an eight seed, which is pretty good.”
AND PRETTY SURPRISING TO SOME; some bracketologists figured CU (23-11) for a ninth or tenth seed. The eighth seed is a tip of the hat by the NCAA Selection Committee, but it also positions a team in one of the tournament’s more challenging first-round games. And CU’s position is just that – challenging.
“Traditionally, the eight-nine (seed) games are always really hard ones because there’s so much parity in the tournament and you’re matched up against somebody much like yourself,” Boyle said. “Then if you are fortunate enough to advance, you get a one seed to look forward to. But in tournament basketball you don’t look ahead, you look at the task at hand.”
Boyle’s long-term objective is to make the suspense of Selection Sundays whether the Buffs will be awarded a top five seed – not whether they will get in the tournament. “Eventually want to get to a point in the program where we’re fighting for those one, two and three seeds . . . we’re not quite there yet, but we will be,” he said. “Right now, especially with what this group has been through this year, to get into the tournament is a good thing. I know the young men who are still playing and competed in Vegas believe they can compete with anybody on any given night. But we’ve got to play well.”
Many first- or second-time NCAA entries suffer from the “just-glad-to-be-there” mindset and are sent packing after the first round. Many in the national hoops community – even some in the local community – counted CU among the dead teams walking when Dinwiddie went down. Instead, after an adjustment period, the Buffs rallied and went 9-9 (counting the Washington game in which he was injured).
Boyle said merely reaching a third-consecutive NCAA Tournament after that coping with adversity would not put the Buffs among the “just-glad-to-be-there” crowd. “I’m not worried about that at all because I know how competitive our guys are,” he said. “Also, they’re smart guys and they know the next loss we have is the end of our season . . . it’s not going to be one of these deals where we’re just happy to be there and (go) one-and-out. If we’re one-and-out we’ll be disappointed. It’s not going to sit well with me or anybody. The next step for this program is to not only get in the tournament but to advance in the tournament.”
Going to the NCAA’s far reaches (for a Rocky Mountain school, at least) to play is fine with the Buffaloes. Boyle wanted to avoid Buffalo, N.Y., simply because he preferred the prospect of warmer weather. “Nothing against Buffalo (but) the sun’s coming out here in Colorado, spring is in the air,” he said. “Our guys are getting ready – as a lot of schools are – for spring break. You wanted to go someplace where it was nice and warm. But at the end of the day, if we went to Buffalo, I’d be just as happy. So Orlando is as good as any.”
And obviously better than some – even if Gator fans can get there on half a tank of gas and turn the Amway Center into Chomp City. For Booker, staying west of the Mississippi River for a first-round game was never a real wish or a consideration.
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” he said. “I mean, you put me on the floor with the basketball and two rims and that’s all that matters to me, man. You just have to prepare, and if you’re prepared you can go anywhere and play.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Buffs weren’t as well-versed on the Panthers as they will be come Thursday. Booker had some knowledge of Pitt’s guards – “They’re very, very talented – similar to us” – and the Panthers’ overall physicality. And Boyle cited Jamie Dixon as “a heck of a coach . . . their defensive principles are a lot like ours. They were in the Big East and kind of a smash-mouth team. But I don’t know much about personnel and what they do offensively – but we’ll find out a lot in a short period of time.”
A SHORT COURSE ON PITT: Joining the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, the Panthers finished 11-7 in the league and 25-9 overall. They were the fifth seed – same as CU in the Pac-12 Tournament – in the ACC Tournament and reached the semifinals, where they were eliminated by eventual champ and No. 1 seed Virginia, 51-48. Pitt beat No. 15 North Carolina 80-75 in the ACC quarterfinals. The Panthers have been in the NCAA Tournament for 12 of the past 13 seasons, and Dixon has been Pitts’ coach for 11 seasons (15 in the program). His overall record: 287-95. The Panthers’ top scorer is 6-5 senior forward Lamar Patterson (17.6 ppg), the leading rebounder is 6-9 senior center Talib Zanna (8.3 rpg).
After his team was eliminated from the ACC Tournament by Virginia, which received one of Sunday’s four top seeds (Florida, Wichita State and Arizona were the other three), Dixon said he was “proud of how our guys played. We got better this week. We're healthy and playing our best basketball."
Boyle had a similar view of the Buffs after the Pac-12 Tournament, which saw them advance to the semifinals with wins over USC and Cal before being eliminated by Arizona. “This team over the last couple or three weeks has really turned the corner defensively with our commitment and energy level,” he said.
“But in the NCAA Tournament, you’re going to have to make some shots, you’re going to have to play with some efficiency on offense and that’s what we’re going to have to do to advance in this thing. Whether it’s against Pittsburgh or whoever we would play next if we were fortunate enough to do that. Then, you’ve got to get a little lucky.
“There’s going to be a lot of close games . . . that’s why they call it March Madness. On those first two days especially a lot of things can happen; there’s so many games and everybody is thinking the same thing – just survive and advance and live to see another day. Pittsburgh is thinking the same thing we are. So is Florida.”
On Sunday afternoon, shortly after Florida was awarded the overall No. 1 seed, Booker reacted to that news by crowing “Colorado” in a long-distance answer to one of the CBS commentators’ remarks of who might be in line to play the Gators. Maybe ‘Ski’ could see the future.
“I don’t care who we play,” Booker said. “If you heard me right when the show started, I wanted to play Florida . . . regardless, I want to play the No. 1 team – the best of the best. That’s how you really test who you are; when everything hits the fan that shows who nuts up and who’s willing to play and who’s willing to compete. I think Pittsburgh is a great team and we can’t overlook them because they’re a very talented team and it’s going to be a rough game.”
March Madness’ first rule is to overlook no one, regardless of who might be next. So the Buffaloes are Dancing for a third straight year – an historic accomplishment. But as Boyle said Sunday and undoubtedly will again, while making the field is good, staying awhile is infinitely better.