BOULDER — Arriving into this basketball town, where Boyle’s Buffaloes roam, I am struck by its natural beauty.
The Flatirons rise high into the sky.
Arriving in Champaign-Urbana, a basketball town, I was struck by its kindness. The natives there are so friendly, it hurts (to leave).
The corn stretches high into the sky.
What else do these college cities — and NCAA tournament foes — share in common and in contrast?
Ralphie, the buffalo, is a sweet lady. Chief Illiniwek, the symbol, was a serious man.
“I actually met Ralphie on my official (recruiting) visit,” Buffs freshman Xavier Johnson told me Monday inside the Coors Event Center. "I was kind of scared of Ralphie. I don’t like it when animals are bigger than me.”
Neither Ralphie nor the Chief is invited when No. 10 Colorado and No. 7 Illinois clash in Austin on Friday. One-ton buffaloes don’t travel well. The Chieeeeeef is in NCAA jail.
"I've watched a couple games (with Illinois),” Buffs shot-maker Spencer Dinwiddie said. “But nothing too serious, because I never anticipated playing them.”
Hopefully, I am most qualified to shed light on this Dance pairing. I covered six seasons of somewhat-shaky Illinois basketball. I grew up, relatively speaking, in Colorado and once lost to Buffs legend Chauncey Billups by roughly 30 points in a pickup game.
Here is what the Buffs should know about the Illini, and vice versa.
This basketball town (Boulder) has a football problem.
That basketball town (Champaign-Urbana) has a football problem.
In practice Monday, Buffs coach Tad Boyle roamed the court with a whistle and a booming voice. In practice, Illini coach John Groce has the energy of three baristas. His voice is broadcast through a microphone, over a loudspeaker.
Boyle is a Colorado native, from Greeley, and a Broncos fanatic. Groce is an Indiana native (hey, no one's perfect) and a Bears fanatic.
“It seems like we (the Bears) have always needed a quarterback,” Groce once told me.
Denver has The Quarterback; Chicago has The Curmudgeon.
The Buffs are youthful, with four freshmen or sophomores as starters, and were thought to be in a transition year. That Boyle engineered an NCAA tournament berth — and the first back-to-back appearances in Boulder in 50 years — speaks to his coaching ability.
I think Boyle is a star on the rise. Careful, Colorado. Don’t lose him to Kansas some day.
The Illini are veteran, with four fourth-year players getting big minutes, and transitioning under a first-year head coach. That Groce engineered an NCAA tournament berth — Illinois missed three of the previous five — speaks to his coaching ability.
I think Groce is a star on the rise. Illinois once lost a coach to Kansas. It remains a sore subject.
Both are in difficult basketball jobs. In C-U, reality gives way to inflated expectations of what the program should be, and has been. At CU, it's about creating expectations.
“How many wins can we get?” Groce asked me in August.
"Mmm, 17," I said. "Maybe 18."
Surprise! Illinois has won 22, lost 12, and earned the higher, favored seed in the East Region. The selection committee handed the Big Ten a yellow-brick road.
Surprise! Colorado has won 21, lost 11, and earned its three-straight NCAA tournament berths (and received two). The selection committee slapped the Pac-12 with an open palm.
“I think it’s a good matchup," Boyle said. "They’ve got a pick-and-pop 4 man (Tyler Griffey), a low-post guy (Nnanna Egwu). They’ve got a big guard in Brandon Paul, like we do with Spencer. They shoot the 3-ball a lot. They’re capable of shooting it very well.
“I think it’s a good matchup for both of us. I think it will be an interesting game — two teams that have shown some flashes of brilliance this year and some inconsistencies.”
Groce would fly to the moon to recruit an NBA-caliber, playmaking point guard. Boyle is stocking up on 6-6 to 6-8 swingmen as though the market is drying up.
The matchup to analyze is Paul vs. Dinwiddie — the best players for the Illini and for the Buffs, respectively.
Wherever he travels, Paul carries an extra bottle of hot sauce in his backpack. Wherever he travels, Dinwiddie carries a SoCal swagger to his game.
As Paul goes, so go the Illini. And so it is with Dinwiddie and the Buffs.
"He (Paul) reminds me of Spencer a lot," Boyle said. "He's a big guard that can put it on the floor and shoot the 3. He comes off ball screens. He's a very explosive-type player."
At 5,430 feet, the Coors Events Center boasts a mural of Alec Burks and Billups, the greatest Buff.
At 738 feet, the Assembly Hall honors the jerseys of Johnny "Red" Kerr and Nick Anderson and other Illini greats. I am partial to Frank Williams and his hesitation dribble.
And there they go: The Buffs and Illini to meet in Austin, with only one Texan on either roster — Buffs rebound-hoarder Andre Roberson.
"I talked to his dad yesterday,” Buffs guard Askia Booker said. "He told me half of Texas is going to be there (rooting) for us.”
Las Vegas says this game is a Pick 'Em.
In a bracket full of 50-50 toss-ups, there isn't a tougher game to pick.
"What are you going to do out in Colorado?" Illini senior D.J. Richardson, a swell young man, asked when I left good ol' Champaign.
Watch the Illini and the Buffs play in the NCAA tournament, it turns out.
Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. Reach him via email (email@example.com) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).
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