The fourth part of our 10-year anniversary series brings us to 2011-12. We’re going from April to April for a full year, so this includes the 2012 Pac-12 Champion basketball team.
With Jon Embree in his first season with the Colorado Buffaloes, 2011 was a down time for a school that football historically dominated. Everyone rushed the field against Arizona after losing seven in a row and the SportsCenter anchor started to make fun of the fans. I was praying the basketball season would instill some hope.
The night before that Arizona “upset”, the Buffs basketball team played their first game of the season. Not much can be taken from a season opener, especially against a non-Division-I opponent, but Askia Booker’s quickness and ability to generate his shot whenever necessary, stood out. The other freshman guard from Los Angeles made his impact shortly thereafter. Over the last seven games of non-conference play Spencer Dinwiddie averaged 15.1 points per game, shot 56.9 percent from the field and took 6.3 free throw attempts per game. Paired with the senior leadership and tenacious defense of Nate Tomlinson and his ability to hit corner threes, the Buffs had a backcourt to work with heading into conference play.
It was a down year for the Pac-12. Colorado was picked to finish 10th in the league, but early in conference play, it was painfully obvious that the talent discrepancy just wasn’t that large. The Buffs ripped off three straight wins at home to start the season and then dropped the next two on the road. The theme continued the entire season: sweep at home, get swept on the road. The Coors Event Center gradually became one of the most hostile environments in the Pac-12. The raucous C-Unit coupled with playing at altitude made the CEC hell for opponents.
Heading into the final homestand, the Buffs were on the bubble. But Stanford — led by Chasson Randle and three future NBA players — came into the CEC and pummeled CU, 74-50. The crowd was deflated. The Buffs ended the home slate on a high note, defeating Cal, a team that was projected to be in the field at that time, rather easily. Still, the only chance to be in the final 68 was to win four games in four days in the Pac-12 Tournament.
First up was Utah. Colorado had beaten them twice already and despite a groggy start, the Buffs prevailed in the usual CU-Utah rock fight.
Next was Oregon. Tomlinson was distributing. Austin Dufault was making tough shots and the defense was everywhere. Carlon Brown began his Kobe impression — post-up fadeaways, contested threes off jab steps, highlight-reel dunks. And when they needed a bucket most, Andre Roberson, the guy who was most under-appreciated by counting stats, was there in the right place at the right time and converted the game-winning layup.
After that was Cal. That game went back and forth with Colorado jumping out early. As cliche as it sounds, it really seemed like the Buffs just wanted this game more. Brown was nailing fadeaways over Jorge Gutierrez, Roberson was hitting threes and Dufault was finishing through traffic at the rim. Brown sealed the game with an emphatic windmill dunk as the C-Unit erupted in that Vegas crowd.
The Buffs were 40 minutes away from an NCAA Tourney berth and Arizona stood in the way. With two of the best defensive teams in the league, every basket was crucial. Carlon Brown continued to take and make shots with an insane degree of difficulty. Dinwiddie saved his best for last as he nailed all four three-pointers he took. Roberson had 10 points, 11 rebounds and a stepback three. A mind-blowing tomahawk jam from Brown gave Colorado a necessary bucket in the final minute and they withstood Arizona on the final possession to end the game. They were Pac-12 Champions in their inaugural season in the conference.
The play in the Pac-12 Tournament matched the identity of what Tad Boyle has always wanted out of his program: defense and rebounding leading the way.
Then in the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed, Colorado got off to a scorching hot start against 6-seeded UNLV and seemingly no Buff could miss. Askia Booker was clutch off the bench and the Buffaloes somehow had a 20-point lead. One moment I can’t seem to forget from that game is Austin Dufault nailing back-to-back threes in the first half. After an up-and-down relationship with the fan base, it was gratifying to see him play well in the biggest game of his career after he worked so tirelessly. The Buffs almost blew the lead, per March tradition, but a Carlon Brown dunk once again righted the ship and they had their first tournament win since Chauncey Billups led the team to the second round in 1997.
There’s not much to say about the Baylor game, lest we bring up traumatic memories and wishful thinking. In short, though, if Brady Heslip doesn’t play the best game of his life, the Buffs are probably in the Sweet 16. Alas.
Ultimately, the 2011-12 season laid the groundwork for Colorado basketball to become relevant again and more importantly, stay relevant. Tad Boyle not only resurrected Colorado basketball, but he gave us a distraction from football.
He found two gems in Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker, who pushed Colorado to a top-15 team until that unfortunate day in Seattle in 2014. Colorado hadn’t made the tournament since 2003, then Boyle led them to March in his second year, then again in his third year, and another his fourth.
Tad Boyle gave the program sustained hope and a reason to be excited every November and it was all because of those four days in Los Angeles in 2012.