ORLANDO, Fla. – Here today, home tomorrow. It’s not the preferred itinerary for Colorado or any of the other seven teams that begin play Thursday at the Amway Center in the NCAA Tournament, but for half of this field that’s the chilling, unfulfilling forecast.
“It's one‑and‑done now,” CU guard Askia Booker said Wednesday, although he and others have said it multiple times since post-season play began last week with the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.
Continued Booker on the win-or-get-lost theme: “I think that's the value of it. You have to cherish these moments, and you have to put your all into these games. Me being a veteran on this team, I have to let these young guys know how important it is and that they – including myself – can't have slip‑ups, that we're going to have to go out there and play for 40 minutes and compete.”
Playing for a full 40 minutes is always a key, but it’s probably more critical for the Buffaloes to avoid those 5- to 6-minute scoring lapses that have haunted them more than anything else over the past month. One such power outage last march in Austin, Texas, diverted them to the “one-and-done” road in a 57-49 loss to Illinois.
But that was another season, another CU team. These Buffs – as unlikely as it might seem with Spencer Dinwiddie so far removed from the lineup – are in a history-making third consecutive Big Dance, entering the far-flung South Region bracket with their highest seeding (No. 8) of any of the school’s previous NCAA trips.
That and a wad of cash will get you an afternoon with Mickey and Minnie in these parts. If CU fans are giddy (and yes, there is justification) over making three straight NCAA Tournaments, Pittsburgh fans see Big Dancing in March as the norm. This is the 12th time in the past 13 seasons that it’s happened, so they’re accustomed to it, even if this year’s at-large berth was born in the Atlantic Coast Conference rather than the Big East.
The Panthers are a No. 9 seed, and either the 8’s or the 9’s reward is likely facing top-seeded, top-ranked Florida, which should have no trouble repeating history and eliminating No. 16 seed Albany. A 16-seed has never beaten a top seed, and the Gators – offered the perk of a short bus ride from Gainesville to Orlando to open the tournament – don’t figure to find themselves on the wrong side of history.
The other teams here (seeds in parentheses) are Saint Louis (5), North Carolina State (12), Louisville (4) and Manhattan (13). Of Thursday’s games, the CU-Pitt matchup – it tips at 11:40 MDT on TBS – figures to be the one most resembling hand-to-hand combat. Both teams prioritize rebounding and defense, which prioritizes physical play.
“Our focus is always to come out and be aggressive on defense,” said Pitt freshman forward Michael Young. “Set the tone early and let them know that every shot they get is going to be earned. They get a good shot and earned it by grinding us out. Our goal is to come out and rebound and be strong on defense.”
The Panthers out-rebounded their opponents 36.1-29.8 this season, the Buffs out-rebounded their opponents 37.5-31.3. Those numbers say these teams are pretty even on the boards. Another fairly even stat: Pitt has limited opponents to 41.3 percent shooting from the field, CU to 42.9.
THE TREND HERE IS JUST WHAT Buffs coach Tad Boyle and Panthers coach Jamie Dixon foresee – a physical, defensive game that is likely to be low on possessions, perhaps low on points. Boyle and the Buffs like to run, Dixon and the Panthers also will hit the accelerator when they can.
At Wednesday’s news conference Boyle said he wasn’t sure if a low-scoring or high-scoring game benefited his team. One reason for that uncertainty is his uncertainty on how the game will be officiated. He prefers a fast, high possession game, but adds, “We also understand when you get into tournament play, a lot of times the scores go down. You look at the way – I look at the way – the officiating was handled in the Pac‑12 tournament relative to the way it was handled in November and December, and it's two totally different games.
“I know the rule changes early this year were intended to try to increase scoring in college basketball, and I think it did early, but you saw the games in Las Vegas were in the 50s and the 60s, at least ours were. I think we have to get a feel for that when we're on the floor (Thursday) and we see how the game is being called. But high‑possession game, low‑possession game, we have got to be able to execute in either one, and we're ready to play either way.
“I don't think it benefits us one way or another, but we'd like to see a high‑possession game, we'd like to see an up‑and‑down game. Whether that happens or not is yet to be seen. We're not a pressing team. It's not like we're going to be trapping all over the court and extending our defense, but we've got to be able to execute either way.”
Whether high-scoring or low-scoring, Dixon’s list of Thursday concerns is topped by slowing Booker in transition, not allowing Josh Scott to dominate inside and dealing inside and out with Xavier Johnson.
“I think Johnson is a concern,” Dixon said. “They play him ‘three’, we play him at the ‘four,’ inside-out, but we've faced a few of those guys, and we've got to be prepared for him . . . he's a guy that made that transition over to the 4, moved him over to the 4. That's something we've got to be aware of, and then Scott, obviously the leading scorer, a big that plays inside‑out, faces, that's a concern.
“And then Booker is kind of a guy that creates shots on his own and then you can play good defense and he can still get a shot up. Those are concerns for us. They're the three leading scorers obviously. (But) the rebounding is a big thing for us. We've got to out rebound them. They take great pride in their rebounding, and I believe we do, too.”
Two of those creases in Boyle’s brow since he began scouting the Panthers were caused by 6-5 wing Lamar Patterson and 6-9 forward Talib Zanna. Patterson averages 17.6 points; Zanna puts up 12.9 points and brings down 8.8 rebounds. There’s also Pitt’s penchant for passing, which actually is first on Boyle’s list.
“Number one is how well they pass the ball,” he said. “They're a team that has multiple options. Obviously the two guys that get the most attention are Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, with good reason. Patterson . . . can do so many things for their team. He can pass it, he can make an open three, he can get the ball in the lane and create for others, he can get the ball to the rim. He's a good player. There's not a lot of weaknesses in his game.
“And then the Zanna kid is just a beast. The way he played in the ACC Tournament, watching those tapes on film, he's a cross between probably Aaron Gordon (Arizona) in terms of his motor and Richard Solomon (Cal) in terms of the numbers he put up. Richard Solomon averaged a double‑double in our league. He's a combination of those two guys, and he's a force to be reckoned with.
“But they've got other guys. (Cameron) Wright and (James) Robinson (both guards) are good players in their own right and can make open shots. But I think the balance of their team and the toughness of their team is what makes Pitt so good.”
BOYLE WANTS BUFFS FANS to become accustomed to seeing “Colorado” flashed on TV screens across America on Selection Sunday. And while he wants that to be a familiar scenario to his players, he wants even more for Selection Sunday’s suspense to hinge on seeding rather than mere inclusion in the NCAA field. When that happens, he says, even larger steps will have been taken in CU hoops.
But above all, says Boyle, “I never want to get to the point where you take this experience for granted. I want to be able to relish this opportunity and to take advantage of it. For this program to get national respect, we have to play well on a national stage, and the stage doesn't get any bigger in basketball than the one we're on right now, the NCAA Tournament.
“For us to gain respect and gain credibility as a program on a national level, we've got to play well and we have to win games and we have to advance in this tournament at some point. You hope every year you're here, you hope this is the year that that happens. But every year you look at your opponent, and you think, oh, boy, we've got our hands full, and that's the case with Pitt.”
Dixon and the Panthers may or may not be having similar thoughts, but the guess here is they’re not gazing past the Buffs at a potential date with the Gators. That’s a fatal mistake in mid-March. Looking ahead inevitably leads to looking back – and lamenting. Done after one is a downer.