Saturday was a big day for a number of front range college basketball programs as the state of Colorado, which has not been represented in the NCAA tournament since the Air Force Academy made a march to madness in 2006, features multiple teams that have a legitimate chance to earn a 2011 tournament birth.
For those with hope of landing a spot in the field of 68, yesterday's results were both mixed and surprising:
The Buffaloes, considered all but out of tourney contention, came up golden yesterday in a 91-89 upset win over fifth-ranked Texas. CU trailed by as many as 22, but behind a tremendous 33-point, 10-rebound performance from Alec Burks, fought back for an unlikely win. The victory lifts the Buffs record to 18-11 overall and 7-7 in the ultra-competitive Big 12. It also gives Colorado quality wins over Texas (considered by many to be a potential No. 1 seed in the tournament), Missouri, and Kansas St (twice).
What’s Left: CU has two games remaining—Wednesday at Iowa St (who the Buffs beat by 26 in Boulder earlier in the season) and next Saturday at home against Nebraska (the Huskers handed Colorado their first conference loss of the year after a 3-0 Big 12 start). Winning these two remaining games would give CU 20 wins on the season and a winning record in a difficult conference. Match that with a good showing in the Big 12 tournament and the Buffs could be dancing for the first time since 2003.
Colorado State Rams
Sitting fourth in a stronger-than-normal Mountain West conference and coming off a competitive eight-point loss in Provo to seventh-ranked BYU earlier this week, the Rams were well-positioned to earn their first tournament bid since 2003. However, yesterday what appeared to be a relatively smooth road to ticket-punching, hit a bump in Colorado Springs, as CSU lost to the Air Force Academy 74-57.
What’s Left: CSU (18-10, 8-6) is still in the four-slot in the MWC, a game-and-a-half behind UNLV and two games ahead of New Mexico. Their two remaining games feature one in which they will be favored (at home against Utah) and one where they will be big underdogs (at San Diego State). If the Rams split the remaining schedule, they will almost surely need to advance to the semifinals of the MWC tournament to sniff a seat on the March Madness bubble. Should they advance to the finals, chances of an NCAA birth increase substantially given the fact that the conference features two Top-10 teams (in BYU and SDSU) and UNLV, who, with the conference tourney being played in Las Vegas, will be enjoying homecourt advantage for as long as they stay alive.
DU (13-16, 9-7) concluded their regular season schedule last night with a 63-41 loss at last season’s Sun Belt Conference Big Dance representative, North Texas. After struggling early in the year while adjusting to the absence of last season’s best player, Nate Rohnert, the Pioneers started the SBC schedule 6-0. They have had some troubles down the stretch, however, losing seven of their last 10, including a heartbreaking home finale last Sunday against South Alabama that saw the Pioneers lose a 14-point halftime advantage.
What’s Left: Only one team from the Sun Belt (the conference tournament winner) will earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. Returning four of five starters from a team that advanced to the SBC tournament semi-finals in 2010, DU had legitimate hopes of qualifying for a postseason birth coming into the season. Until this past week’s falloff, the Pioneers sat atop the SBC West Division and would have earned a first-round bye in Hot Springs, Arkansas (the site of the SBC tourney). As it now sits, DU has dropped to third in the SBC West and will take on Florida International next Saturday in the tournament’s opening round. The Pioneers are plenty experienced and if their shooting touch heats up in Hot Springs in coach Joe Scott’s “Princeton offense”, DU stands a chance.
Northern Colorado Bears
UNC earned a 72-71 win yesterday behind a 23-point performance from Centaurus High School product Devon Beitzel. The victory pushes the Bears to 17-10 overall and 11-3 in the Big Sky Conference. Thanks to an Eastern Washington win over Montana, the Bears now sit atop the conference standings with just two games remaining.
What’s Left: UNC plays at Idaho State on Monday night and hosts Sacramento State Wednesday night. If the Bears win both, they claim the regular season Big Sky Championship. More importantly, the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament means UNC would host both the semifinals and finals—in an arena where the Bears are 11-0 this season and 24-2 over the past two. Win the Big Sky tourney and the Bears are in.