Colorado Makes NIT, Hosts Texas Southern Wednesday
BOULDER - Over the past week, the Colorado Buffaloes believed they had played their way off of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Turns out they were on it all along - and Sunday at 4:39 p.m. MDT, the Buffs' bubble burst.
At that moment, the final pairing in the Southeast Region was announced and CU wasn't anywhere in the 68-team NCAA field. About 21/2 hours later, the Buffs learned they were one of four No. 1 seeds in the NIT, where being a top seed offers three home games and - if those games are won - the inside track to the NIT finals on March 31 at Madison Square Garden.
Nice consolation prize, but one the Buffs didn't expect when the afternoon began. Their challenge, a mountainous one, now becomes to flush Selection Sunday's heartbreak and prepare to play Texas Southern Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Coors Events Center.
"It's going to be a challenge, there's no doubt . . . I just feel like the way we're playing right now, we're one of the top 68 teams in the country. I know that. But we're not in the tournament and we'll have to deal with it. And we'll have to make a statement in the NIT. Otherwise, talk's cheap," CU Coach Tad Boyle said.
Boyle felt confident enough about the Buffs reaching the NCAAs for only the third time in 41 years that he threw a watch party at his Niwot home for a crowd of about 70 that included his players, coaches, various school officials and the media.
As the NCAA brackets filled and the Buffs hadn't been penciled in, angst was nearly palpable in Boyle's den. The last of the four regions to be announced was the Southeast, and when CU didn't appear on the screen, some players buried their heads in their hands while others sat in stunned silence.
"I can't describe it," said Cory Higgins, among five close-knit CU seniors with Levi Knutson, Marcus Relphorde, Javon Coney and Trent Beckley. "I hope I don't have too many more of those feelings in my life."
After several minutes, Boyle ushered his players to a meeting in his basement, later calling it the "most difficult" impromptu team meeting he's ever had and the second-most difficult team meeting of any kind. No. 1 on that dubious list was telling his University of Northern Colorado players last spring that he was taking the CU job. (Ironically, his former team made the 2011 NCAA field.)
"I wish there were words I had that would make them feel better, but there's not," Boyle said. "There's nothing I can say that will make them feel better right now . . . I thought we were in. We've said it all along - you don't get too excited until your name pops up - but yet in the back of your mind you feel like your name is going to pop up. When it doesn't you're extremely shocked and disappointed - those are the two words that come to my mind.
"There are a lot of things you don't have control over in this life, and being selected in the NCAA Tournament is one of those things . . . I feel bad for five seniors, I don't feel bad for Tad Boyle, for Colorado basketball. I feel bad for five seniors who'll never have the opportunity to play in this tournament. Our young guys will, our coaching staff will, our university will as this program moves forward. But those five young men won't."
Added Knutson: "We've got to prove that we're a team that should have made the (NCAA) tournament. It shouldn't be hard to get fired up. I was nervous (during the selection show) because I've been waiting for this day for a long time. It was obviously disappointing when we didn't see our name at the end, but we can't control it now so we have to respond."
Relphorde called CU's exclusion as one of 37 at-large teams "a surprise to everybody, a shock. We expected to get in, but I guess we didn't do enough in the committee's eyes. We just have to regroup."
Teams shunned by the NCAA that regroup quickly can live to dribble another couple of weeks in the NIT. Teams that don't are bounced just as fast. A case in point is local: the 2005-06 CU team finished 9-7 (fourth) in the Big 12 Conference and 20-9 overall. When the NCAA looked the other way, the NIT looked at CU. The Buffs responded with a blank stare. Old Dominion visited the Events Center but the host team didn't show, losing 79-61.
"Whoever considers themselves a leader on this team - and I'm one of the people that does - really has to set the tone when we get back to work," Higgins said. "We can't afford to miss a beat and get bounced from the tourney. Then it makes (the NCAA) look like they made the right decision."
Boyle believed the Buffs had made a solid case for themselves in the final month of the regular season, winning six of nine games - two in the league tournament - and reaching the Big 12 semifinals for the first time. Included in those six wins was a pair against Kansas State that gave CU a 3-0 record against KSU - the last victory coming in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
Also included was a win against then-No. 5 Texas, and CU opened league play by defeating then-No. 8/9 Missouri. The Buffs had five wins (three vs. KSU) against teams that finished with top 50 RPI rankings. CU, finishing with an RPI of 65, finished with a 21-13 overall record (8-8 Big 12), winning the most games since 1996-97 (22-10).
K-State was among five Big 12 teams included in the NCAA field, with Kansas (one of four No. 1 seeds), Texas, Texas A&M and Missouri. "No question about it, when you look at our record against some of the teams that got in, it's extremely disappointing," CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn said.
CU lost in overtime to A&M and three times to KU, including in the conference tournament semifinals. After CU's 90-83 loss, KU Coach Bill Self said he believed the Buffs had played their way into the NCAA Tournament, even terming them a "dangerous" draw for any opponent.
"I relied on our league, our great wins, the way we played in the conference tournament," Boyle said. "It's obvious to me that what hurt us was our November and December (losses at Harvard and San Francisco occurred then) part of the schedule. More weight was put on that in terms of Colorado than the league play and the conference tournament play was."
Boyle called scheduling "a hard science," adding he will "look very closely at it going forward. It gets back to a lot of things you don't have control over in scheduling. There's a lot of good teams that didn't get in this tournament and we're one of them."
CU lost non-conference road games at Georgia, San Francisco and Harvard, with one of those opponents (Georgia) making the NCAA Tournament. Conference losses that undoubtedly returned to haunt CU included those against Nebraska, Oklahoma, Baylor and Iowa State. But Boyle was counting on his team's improvement down the stretch, and Bohn was hoping the selection committee factored in Boyle's team going through an early season adjustment period to its new coach.
Boyle also pointed out that the Buffs "went on the road more than any other Big 12 team . . . you're penalized for it but you're not rewarded for making the attempt to go on the road. We lost to a good Harvard team and a good San Francisco team that finished third in their league. But that stuff doesn't matter; what matters is that we lost those games and there's nothing you can do about that now."
Bohn said he didn't want the NCAA snub to "take away from the great wins we had and the great progress we're making as a program. It'll be important for us to come out at home and show that (NCAA Selection Committee) made a mistake.
"Dan Beebe (Big 12 Commissioner) was on the (selection) committee. He's a guy that I know had great passion and support for not only the whole league, but for Colorado, and I know he was working very hard on our behalf . . . anytime you feel maybe it didn't go your way for whatever reason, I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to flesh that out a little and Dan (Beebe) will share some of that with us."
The NIT field is composed of 32 teams in four regions (eight teams in each). Other No. 1 seeds included Alabama, Boston College and Virginia Tech. Colorado State, beaten by the Buffs 90-83 in overtime on Dec. 8 in Boulder, also is in CU's NIT bracket and could visit the Events Center again.
Texas Southern, of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, finished 19-12 this season. CU played one SWAC team this season, defeating Alcorn State 91-51 in November. CU/Texas Southern common opponents include Oklahoma, Oregon State, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor and Alcorn State. Texas Southern was 2-4 against those teams, defeating Oregon State and Alcorn State.
The task of Boyle, his staff and CU's seniors now becomes to revitalize the team before Wednesday night. Responding to challenges, said Boyle, has been a normal undertaking for the Buffs this season. The NIT, he added, offers the opportunity to "play in a tournament with a great history and an opportunity to get these guys to Madison Square Garden and New York City - the mecca of college basketball and where you want to play.
"We've got that opportunity in front of us. Now the challenge is to emotionally respond to what we're going through right now as players and coaches. Our coaches will respond, and it's our job to get our players to."
Higgins seemed certain the Buffs will rebound.
"We're all grown men," he said. "There are going to be harder things in life. We don't have a choice. We have to get back on track and just continue with what we have left in the season. We have to take all our frustrations out on somebody else."