AUSTIN, Texas – For 50 years, Colorado could usually 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. 10-seed Buffaloes (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 Buffs 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.”
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 enter the NCAA tournament having lost three of their last four games.
The mid-season slide brought out a lot of “doubters and haters,” 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.”