BOULDER, Colo. -
If there's a target on the Colorado Buffaloes' backs to go with the trophy they hoisted for winning the Pac-12 basketball tournament title last March, coach Tad Boyle doesn't see it.
"I don't know if we are being pursued yet,'' Boyle said. "We had a great four-game run at the end of the year, but the reality is we finished fifth in the league last year, and we had a good run at the end, and we won an NCAA tournament game.''
While that's a far cry from their days as the dregs of the Big 12, the Buffaloes - younger and more athletic - have to build on that senior-driven success of last season in order to challenge for another NCAA tournament berth.
"Right now all we've done is open some eyes. People aren't going to fear Colorado basketball for what we've done,'' Boyle insisted. "They're going to be more aware of us. We might have their attention now. We might not sneak up on people, but we've got more to do to get that bull's eye on our back. We don't have it yet.''
Indeed, the Buffs were picked to finish in the middle of the pack by media members who cover Pac-12 men's hoops, behind Arizona, UCLA, Cal, NIT champion Stanford and reigning regular season conference champion Washington.
"We just have to go out there and prove them wrong again,'' junior Andre' Roberson said. "Just gain their respect nationally, as well. That's one thing Coach Boyle and the team talked about. That's one thing we're going to try to do and work on. We'll use it as fuel.''
Sophomore Spencer Dinwiddie said, "We like that we ... have a little bit of respect. But we feel that we still don't have enough. You want to be one of the top teams. I understand that UCLA and Arizona having the top two classes in the country, whatever, we feel like we should be considered for that third spot at least.''
After bolting the Big 12, the Buffs had a solid season and a magical March that included four wins in four nights to win the Pac-12 tournament title in their first year in the expanded league. They beat UNLV in their NCAA tournament opener but ran into an old nemesis, the Baylor Bears, who used a 19-3 game-ending run to turn a close contest into an 80-63 rout in Albuquerque, N.M.
By game's end, the Bears' fans - quiet when it was 61-60 with 7:46 left - were deliriously chanting, "Big 12 rejects'' at their former conference brethren.
While seniors Nate Tomlinson, Carlon Brown, Austin Default and Trey Eckloff set the tone for that run eight months ago, it was the young nucleus of freshmen Askia Booker and Dinwiddie and sophomore Roberson that sparked the Buffs (24-12) and gave Colorado hope that this NCAA tournament trip was just the beginning.
The Buffs' future looks bright. They seem much more comfortable and competitive playing out West and they're 10-3 in the postseason in Boyle's two years in Boulder.
Now, Booker, Dinwiddie and Roberson are joined by a fantastic freshmen class that includes forwards Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson, along with returning big men Ben Mills and Shane Harris-Tunks and guard Sabatino Chen, the lone senior on the roster.
"We're younger, less experienced,'' Booker said, "but I think we have a little more talent. A little more athleticism.''
With that exodus of senior leadership come new challenges for Colorado.
"This year you're probably going to see more blocked shots, more highlight plays,'' Dinwiddie said. "We're going to be more athletic and we're definitely going to get up and down more. But our defense is probably a step back from where it was last year.''
"We're going to be more athletic and we're definitely going to get up and down more. But our defense is probably a step back from where it was last year.''