Colorado-Baylor Preview


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) Colorado was one of the first dominos to fall in the massive conference realignment that overhauled college sports.

Baylor was one of the programs that had the most to lose when the Big 12 looked as if it might disintegrate during all that upheaval.

Given all that, it's no stretch to say Saturday's meeting between these former conference foes will mean as much to the commissioners and athletic directors who watch the money as it does to the players who are trying to extend their stay in the NCAA tournament.

A matchup that once barely raised an eyebrow has suddenly become a statement game of sorts, and not only because the winner heads to the second weekend in the South Regional: It's third-seeded Baylor, one of the six tournament teams from the shrunken Big 12, against 11th-seeded Colorado, one of only two that made the draw from the expanding Pac-12.

So which conference got the better of this deal?

''I think like every other coach in the Big 12, you just hated it because it was such a good conference and league at the time,'' Bears coach Scott Drew said. ''When it's experiencing so much success, why change? But at the same time, I was blessed and fortunate enough to know the leadership and our university were going to put us in a great situation.''

Indeed, by putting more emphasis (and money) into its athletic program and by threatening a lawsuit when more Big 12 teams were thinking about bolting, Baylor (28-7) has ended up in a very good place.

-A team that nearly fell apart nine years ago in the wake of the killing of player Patrick Dennehy is instead drawing lots of attention these days for its play on the court, to say nothing of those neon-green uniforms.

-A university that looked like an also-ran when it was every man for himself in the realignment game is now a power in one of the best conferences in the country - a conference that will go back to 12 teams when West Virginia and TCU join.

''A lot of these decisions were based very much on institutional branding and positioning and, in a lot of ways, it seemed like the student-athlete interest was not considered,'' Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said of realignment. ''That interest is something that, from our standpoint, we value heavily. But across the board, it didn't always seem like that was the case.''

Colorado had plenty of reasons to make the move. Chief among them was the $20 million in TV money the program received from joining a bolstered Pac-12. Not nearly as high on the list was the chance to move up in the basketball standings. But it happened. And while Pac-12's recent lull has benefited the Buffs, it's hard to argue Colorado would have been much better than middle of the pack this season in the top-heavy Big 12.

''Definitely talent-wise, probably the best team we've played this year,'' CU forward Austin Dufault said of the Bears, who tied for third in the Big 12. ''They've got a lot of great guys, NBA guys. But that's why you play the game.''

Nobody knows that better than Colorado.

The Buffs (24-11) played themselves out of an at-large bid with losses to Oregon and Oregon State to close the regular season, but made their way into the NCAAs by winning the Pac-12 tournament. They opened in the South Regional with a 68-64 victory over UNLV - a win punctuated as much by guard Carlon Brown's windmill dunk at the end as by a raucous group of fans who drove down I-25 to cheer for a team that has largely been ignored over the decades.

They're in for an uphill climb against Baylor, which has players consistently described as ''tall'' and ''long'' and ''resilient.'' Led by Pierre Jackson (13.5 points, 5.6 assists) and the two 'Qs' - Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller - the Bears have overcome double-digit deficits to win five games this season, including Thursday's opener against South Dakota State. They are a 7 1/2-point favorite over the Buffs.

''Eventually, we don't want to be in a position where we're the underdog,'' Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. ''But right now, we are. We're an 11 seed. They picked us to finish 11th in the Pac-12. Lot of interesting things for us with that No. 11 this year.''

It has been lucky. Instead of finishing at the bottom, the Buffs wound up winning the conference, and now, they're faced with a bit of their past - a meeting with a Baylor program they thought they'd left behind.

''Those decisions are made so far above coach's heads that I never got into where we should be or wanted to be,'' Boyle said. ''We're going to play where they tell us to play, and we're going to play against whoever is on our schedule.''