KANSAS CITY – Shortly after his hiring as Colorado's basketball coach last spring, Tad Boyle flew to the hometown of his star player.
Boyle, though, didn't travel to Kansas City to visit with reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year Alec Burks. He went to meet his mother. The only way to keep Burks from transferring or entering the NBA draft, Boyle figured, was to reach out to the person who knew him best.
"Alec had a lot of people in his ear," Boyle said. "The sharks were in the water. They were circling."
It didn't last long, as Boyle's impromptu trip to Kansas City helped convince Burks to return for his sophomore season. Eleven months later, Colorado all but punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament Thursday with an 87-75 win over Kansas State at the Sprint Center.
Much to the delight of his hometown fans, Burks scored 24 points and Cory Higgins added 28 in the victory, which came in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. The fifth-seed Buffaloes will play No. 1 seed Kansas on Friday at 6 CST.
"If we beat the Jayhawks, I think we'll probably get in (the NCAA tournament)," said Boyle, and he couldn't help but grin.
Colorado, after all, is probably already in the 68-team field by defeating No. 19 Kansas State for the third time this season. Mix in victories against other ranked opponents such as Texas and Missouri, and Colorado appears to have built a resume strong enough to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
With an overall record of 21-12, the Buffaloes have won 20 or more games for just the fifth time in the 108-year history of the program.
"These young men are trying to make a statement and leave their footprints in the sands of time," Boyle said. "The only way you can do that is to wear your work boots every single day and come to the gym like we came to the gym today, ready to go."
In some ways the Buffaloes' success shouldn't be all that surprising. Boyle inherited a team that included senior Cory Higgins – who averaged 18.9 points last season – and underrated forward Marcus Relphorde. Colorado also features one of the Big 12's top 3-point shooters in Levi Knutson. The Big 12's Sixth Man of the Year is making 48.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
But no player is as important to the Buffaloes as Burks, a first-team All-Big 12 selection who is averaging 19.8 points. After former coach Jeff Bdzelik left for Wake Forest last spring, Burks threatened to transfer if the school didn't hire assistant coach Steve McClain.
When athletic director Mike Bohn plucked Boyle from Northern Colorado, Burks decided to give him a chance.
"He talked to me man-to-man. He was real with me," Burks said. "I respected that. I didn't want anyone to tell me lies or fake stories. He told me the truth and he looked me in the eyes.
"He said, 'We're going to play hard, we're going to play good defense and we're going to run.' That's what we've been doing."
Even though he grew up less than two hours from Missouri, the Tigers didn't offer Burks a scholarship. Kansas State did, but Burks stuck with his commitment to Colorado because of the loyalty it had shown him from the beginning.
The Buffaloes are glad he did.
With Burks leading the way Colorado's high-scoring, fast-paced attack is a sharp contest to the Princeton-style offense the Buffaloes ran under Bdzelik.
"We're playing in Boulder, Colorado - a mile high," Boyle said. "We've got to take advantage of that. We've got to play fast, high possession games. We've got great perimeter players who love to get up and down the court. Plus, it's more fun to watch, more fun to play and more fun to recruit to. It just makes sense where we are."
As happy as they are to have players such as Burks and Higgins, the Buffaloes couldn't be more excited about their long-term future under Boyle, the former Northern Colorado head coach who played under Larry Brown at Kansas.
Before he began to address his players during his first meeting with them last spring, Boyle walked around the locker room and shook each of their hands.
"He already knew everyone's name – from the top player all the way down to the managers and trainers," Knutson said. "That made a pretty big impression on everyone."
After a few head-scratching losses to Harvard and San Francisco early in the season, the Buffaloes have played as well as any team in the Big 12 the last few weeks. They'll enter today's game against Kansas having won five of their last six games.
"It was just a matter of building trust as quickly as I could," Boyle said. "There's no fast-forward button to do that. We have to go through some workouts, some practices and get through a season. I have a lot better feel for these guys today than I did a year ago."
Impressive as Colorado's turnaround has been – the Buffaloes went 15-16 last year – it's not as if this is the first time Boyle has worked his magic with a struggling program.
Northern Colorado was 4-24 during Boyle's first season in 2006-07. Last year he led the Bears to a 25-8 record, and Wednesday night his former team defeated Montana in the championship game of the Big Sky Tournament, which gives them an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.
Boyle smiled when asked what it would mean for his old team and his new team to both be included in the 68-team field.
"That would make me feel pretty darned special and proud," Boyle said. "It would be a great day Sunday if we both got in."
- Tad Boyle