March 19, 2011
BOULDER, Colo. — About an hour before tipoff of Colorado's second-round NIT matchup against Cal on Friday night came the first clue that the atmosphere wasn't going to be as mundane as might be expected for a consolation game.
There on a street corner a few blocks from the Coors Event Center were a handful of college-aged men holding cardboard "I need tickets" signs.
Seldom are NIT games held on the Friday before spring break a coveted enough ticket to warrant scalpers, but Colorado fans continue to embrace a team that many believe ought to have received an NCAA tournament bid. The near-capacity crowd was so loud and so spirited during Colorado's 89-72 victory that Buffs coach Tad Boyle began his postgame news conference by thanking fans for their support.
"I was blown away," Boyle said. "These guys are obviously easy to rally around right now with what we've been through this week. The way these young men have responded to it a testament to their character but it's also a testament to our fans and just how loyal they've been all year long."
The response of the crowd is symbolic of the resilience Colorado has shown since the shock of not hearing its name called on Selection Sunday. Instead of crying about how their resume was better than UAB or Clemson or watching the upset-heavy Denver regional 30 miles up the road and dreaming of what might have been, they've channeled their focus into their first two NIT games.
Credit Boyle for finding a way to motivate his players by dangling a different carrot in front of them before each game.
Against Texas-Southern, it was an opportunity to prove the selection committee wrong. Against Cal, it was an opportunity to notch Colorado's school-record 23rd victory. And against either Fairfield or Kent State on Tuesday, it will be an opportunity to earn a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.
Boyle said he knew from the way Colorado practiced the Monday after Selection Sunday that his team hadn't given up on its season. Asked how the Buffs have moved on from disappointment so quickly, sophomore guard Alec Burks was matter of fact.
"When they say you're not in, you're not in," he said. "It's over. You can't sit there and pout about it. It's not going to make you get in, so you've got to keep moving forward. That's what being a man is all about."
What's most impressive about the character of the Buffs is that this is a team that was pointing to this season as its chance to make a splash, not one that's necessarily building toward the future. Three of Colorado's four leading scorers are seniors, while the fourth, Burks, may enter the NBA draft after the season.
Burks and Cory Higgins combined for 47 points against Cal, helping Colorado break open a close game in the second half. It didn't hurt that injury-ravaged Cal finished the game with three current or former walk-ons on the floor after Jorge Gutierrez got hurt midway through the second half.
Cal coach Mike Montgomery came away impressed not just with Colorado but with the sudden surge in support the program is receiving in Boyle's first season.
"Colorado's never been a basketball place," Montgomery said. "It's been some place that everybody talked about as a great school and a great location, but they never really generated much interest in basketball. This year they had, what, five sellouts and I saw a lot of 11,000-seat crowds. That's terrific."