Nine years later, can a Colorado team make it out of the first round?

The last time the men’s teams from Colorado and Colorado State both made it to college basketball’s big dance was 2003. You don’t hear much about it because both were one-and-done, eliminated in the round of 64.

Colorado was the No. 10 seed in the South region that year. The Buffaloes were dispatched by the No. 7 seed, Michigan State, 79-64. Colorado State was the No. 14 seed in the West. Duke, the No. 3 seed in the region, sent the Rams home 67-57.

So the question this year is whether either or both Colorado schools can get beyond the round of 64 and get a little taste of the Madness. Both are No. 11 seeds this year. The early line made Murray State a 3-point favorite over Colorado State and UNLV a 4 1/2-point choice over CU.

So which Colorado school has the better chance to pull the upset?

If you judge by who’s hot and who’s not, it’s CU. The Runnin’ Rebels put the runnin’ back into Nevada-Las Vegas basketball under first-year coach Dave Rice, but they started faster than they finished. After compiling a gaudy 21-3 mark out of the gate, they lost five of their last ten, including a 66-59 defeat to Colorado State in Fort Collins on Feb. 29.

By contrast, after losing three of four to finish the regular season, Colorado roared back to life in the Pac-12 tournament, winning four games in four days in Los Angeles to take the conference championship in its first Pac-12 season and earn an automatic bid to the national tournament.

The challenge for CU coach Tad Boyle will be avoiding the temptation to let UNLV dictate the pace of the game. The Rebels thrive in the open court. They love to run and gun, sharing the ball and showing off high-flying moves that may remind you of Jerry Tarkanian’s teams (Rice was a member Tarkanian’s 1990 national championship team). Unselfishness is their hallmark. They were second in the nation in assists and fourth in field goal percentage. In fact, they outran North Carolina, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, for a 90-80 victory back in November.

On the other hand, the Rebels struggle when forced to play half-court basketball. Wisconsin took the air out of the ball in December and prevailed 62-51. New Mexico obliterated UNLV 65-45 in February.

Because they don’t like to slow it down, the Rebels are also not great at holding leads. They blew advantages over TCU and CSU down the stretch of the Mountain West Conference regular season.

Slowing it down is a challenge for the Buffs because they, too, like to run. The temptation will be even greater playing at altitude in Albuquerque, where Colorado’s high-altitude conditioning should be an advantage. Still, having lost its top four scorers from last year’s squad, this particular CU team is not that explosive. It averaged 67.6 points per game, 183rd in the nation. The Rebels’ 76.7 points-per-game average ranked 24th.

At 6-foot-7, sophomore Andre Roberson emerged as a do-everything star for the Buffaloes this season. He led them in rebounds, steals and blocks, was second in scoring and assists and is their best on-the-ball defender. If he and senior Carlon Brown continue to lead as they did in the Pac-12 tournament, and if the Buffs can resist the siren song of UNLV’s pace, they’ll have an opportunity to advance to the round of 32.

In Murray State, CSU faces a similar challenge. The Racers, as their name suggests, would love to make it a race. They averaged 74.2 points per game this season in the Ohio Valley Conference, good for 40th in the country. The Rams, at 71 points per game, were 101st.

The Racers played only two ranked teams all season — Memphis and St. Mary’s — but beat them both. Against many tournament opponents, the Racers would seem small. Their starters measure up at 6-feet, 6-1, 6-3, 6-7 and 6-7. As it happens, the Rams are even smaller, featuring a starting five that come in at 5-11, 6-2, 6-3, 6-5 and 6-6.

Tim Miles’ bunch doesn’t want to run, largely because it lacks the depth to substitute freely. So it shouldn’t be tempted to get into a track meet. The Rams excel at offensive efficiency in the half court, moving the ball, moving without the ball and getting open looks. They are fifth in the country in three-point shooting and led the Mountain West in field goal percentage. But they struggle to rebound because of their lack of size.

“We’re undersized all the time,” Miles said last week on the Dave Logan Show. “We defended pretty well in the conference. We were the third-best defensive team in league play. Now, we had some troubles earlier in the year. And we lost Pierce Hornung, who’s on the all-Mountain West defensive team, for six and a half games. He got his bell rung, a concussion, during the Stanford game when we were up 13. And we lost that game and then went 3-3 without him.

“But since then, those kids have really defended, hung around on the boards and we play offense with a good pace. What I mean by that is we don’t really fast break because we don’t have a lot of depth, but when we’re in our half court offense, it’s hard to keep up with our guys. They really run hard and cut hard and play well together.”

In short, the keys for Colorado and Colorado State are pretty similar. Both must resist the temptation to allow their games to be turned into track meets, which will be more tempting for the Buffs than the Rams. Both must defend tenaciously in the half court, rebound the ball without dominant size and execute efficiently at the offensive end.

Neither is favored, but each has an opportunity to pull off the upset by playing disciplined basketball.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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