In a shocking move last week, the Colorado Buffaloes will be leaving the Pac-12 and re-joining the Big 12 for the 2024-25 season. Say what you will about cultural fit and academic prestige, but this is big win for the non-Olympic sports, particularly the football program as Deion Sanders can lean into their Big 12 history and Texas connections to build up a team capable of contending in their new conference home.
Basketball does not have that history, unfortunately. Not a good history, anyway. The Buffs were a bottom dweller in the old Big 12 as luminaries Joe Harrington, Ricardo Patton and Jeff Bzdelik all struggled to find sustained success on the hardwood. Colorado is a very difficult job since the program receives little institutional funding and the state itself is not exactly rich in basketball talent. The only reason it’s not like that anymore is because we found the perfect coach to build an identity that doesn’t need things like money or blue chip recruits to be successful.
Tad Boyle is Colorado Basketball. He has more wins and NCAA Tournament appearances than anyone in program history. He also won the first conference championship since 1969 and probably would have had another in 2021 if the most accurate free throw shooting team in NCAA history didn’t shoot 12/20 from the line in the Pac-12 title game. The Buffs will not return to the Big 12 as they were before they left because Colorado is now a Basketball Program, certified, stamped and approved.
The Buffs will be joining the premier basketball league in the country. It’s loaded top to bottom. There’s the elite upper class where recent champs Kansas and Baylor reside. There’s a healthy middle class with Kansas State, TCU, Iowa State and Oklahoma State. West Virginia and Texas Tech are both great programs that are just a bit messy at the moment. The Big 12 is also adding powerhouse Houston, the always good Cincinnati and BYU, and UCF, the only lightweight in the 13-team league. And that inevitable 14th team is likely Arizona, another heavyweight.
There is one, maybe two programs that Colorado will be clearly above in the long-term. Otherwise the Buffs will have to fight tooth and nail to stay in the middle of the pack. Any future 20-win seasons will come with a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament. We will have to readjust our expectations and keep adjusting until we’re used to conference road games in Lawrence, Lubbock and Morgantown. It will not be the Pac-12 with its soft underbelly of Cals and Washington States, where the Buffs will struggle all season and still finish 5th or 6th in the conference. Our best teams won’t be contenders as they were these past twelve years.
Colorado basketball will take its lumps, but they will deal some too. Boulder is not a friendly place for visiting basketball teams regardless of conference affiliation. Kansas learned its lesson in 2013. Teams have avoided playing here ever since. Boyle’s brand of defense and rebounding wears down opponents no matter how talented they are, especially at altitude, especially when the Keg is behind the team. One Big 12 coach said to The Athletic, “I told (my scheduling guy), schedule anybody from the Pac-12, and Colorado was maybe the one exception. Tad’s teams are tough. He’s a Big 12 dude.”
There were big games in the Pac-12, but hosting Oregon and Arizona will be nothing compared to having a slew of top-10 or top-25 teams coming into town. The Keg will packed against old foes Kansas and Baylor (and Arizona). Every game will matter and there will plenty of chances to pull off home upsets, as long as the Buffs remain a competitive team in this ultra-competitive conference.
There has been talk that the Buffs will be dead in the water upon their arrival. Maybe that happens after Tad retires, but for now there’s no real reason why the Buffs can’t be at the same level as Texas Tech, Iowa State or Cincinnati, if not better. The middle class of the Big 12 is not in another world in terms of prestige and success. The most tangible difference will be money invested in the program and NIL deals but that doesn’t have to remain the same, particularly if the CU administration sees value in being competitive in the nation’s top basketball conference.
Colorado will only grow as a basketball program in the years to come. The Buffs have long tapped into Texas as a recruiting bed, as they have brought in talents like Andre Roberson and Elijah Parquet and are currently recruiting Robert Miller and Doryan Onwuchekwa. They can use their California connections to bring in elite talent to the most competitive league in the country. The Buffs have a reputation for developing NBA talent — one of the reasons Cody Williams picked CU — and that should solidify as the team plays against top talent night in and night out.
The Buffs have a reputation, an identity and recruiting prestige that will all play at the Big 12 level. We don’t have to worry about being a bottom dweller again. Colorado will be a good program in a great conference. Maybe the Buffs won’t compete for conference titles like they did in the Pac-12, but there is lot more upside in this move than initially thought.