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For almost three decades, if you heard that the men's basketball coach at the University of Colorado was going to hang around for another year, it was like learning that Captain Smith was still the skipper of the Titanic. In Boulder, basketball was a minor annoyance wedged between football season and spring break. Take two Advils, curl up with a 1,500-page Tolstoy novel and wait for it to be over.
The Buffs' astonishing 22-9 season came to an end Saturday afternoon in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but the Ricardo Patton era was just getting under way. Sophomore scoring machine Chauncey Billups may flee to the NBA, and a couple of talented seniors are about to graduate, but CU's first trip to the NCAA tournament since before men walked on the moon showed that hoops is a whole new ballgame along the Flatirons. Picked in a pre-season media poll to finish eleventh in the brand-new Big 12, Patton's troops were outgunned in the league this year only by the University of Kansas--now the odds-on choice to be the last team standing at the Big Dance.
What do you think? Have you ever seen a prettier sight than Indiana coach Bobby Knight slumped in desolation on the bench, as if somebody had just smacked him in his big mouth? The Buffs jumped out to a 7-0 lead Thursday night (Knight goes bug-eyed), ran the margin to 15-3 (Knight goes ballistic) and breezed away to an 80-62 upset--CU's first NCAA tournament win since 1963. In the first half, Billups scored his 1,000th collegiate point. In the second, tall boys all over America suddenly started getting the idea that Boulder might be a nice place to go to school.
Like CU football coach Bill McCartney before him, Patton has rekindled an entire program. If, by eleventh-hour clumsiness or stupidity, the powers that be at Colorado somehow let him slip away, they should be lynched on the Pearl Street Mall. Patton has made his bones. If his tight-knit club's 13-1 home record this year didn't convince everyone of his value, Colorado's first win at Missouri in more than twenty years and a victory over Texas Tech that broke that school's 36-game home-floor winning streak should have.
If those things didn't do the trick, that hurtin' the Buffs laid on the Hoosiers last week has to. This was not Bobby Knight's best-ever team, to be sure, but the manner in which self-assured Colorado--strangers to the big time--swept Indiana away bore witness to Patton's skills: the 6 a.m. team bonding sessions in the Dal Ward Center, the 7 a.m. team breakfasts, the wake-up visits to the Denver County Jail. Hey, along with polishing up the X's and 0's, Ricardo Patton even put his players through an etiquette class.
"If you win the national championship," he told them, "you get invited to the White House. I want the team to feel comfortable in all social situations."
National championship? White House? What in the world was this man talking about? Here was a program that literally lost a hundred straight Big 8 road games, and now the guys were polishing their shoes for a trip to the White House? This was the team that, just two years earlier, was beaten by an industrial-league team sponsored by an oil company? Now they were suddenly about to break bread with Bill and Hillary?
Well, not quite. North Carolina coach Dean Smith, a man whose very name will have the adjective "legendary" attached to it for all time, like a barnacle, saw to that last Saturday. Fate is a joker, so it was Colorado that got served up to the Tar Heels in the NCAA East Regional's second round. Was it a big game for the Heels? Nah. The only thing winning would mean was that Smith, 36 years on the job, would become the winningest coach in college basketball history with his (gulp!) 877th victory, surpassing the (what else?) legendary Adolph Rupp.
First Bobby Knight? Then Dean Smith, on the brink of history? What's a poor little football school to do?
Well, for one thing, play its heart out. Twelve-point underdogs, the Buffs hung tough with North Carolina for twenty minutes of play and actually led 31-30 at halftime. Then, with fifteen minutes left in the game, a 30-8 run by North Carolina and some hometown foul calls that might qualify as legendary themselves set Dean Smith a-sail to his date with destiny. The Tar Heels had to win fourteen straight games at the close of this season to get their coach to this point; Colorado was simply unable to forestall the inevitable until next fall. In the process, they wilted under Smith's relentless 2-3 zone defense, missed twelve straight 3-pointers and fell 73-56. Dance card canceled.
Along college basketball's famed Tobacco Road, Ricardo Patton and the Buffaloes will one day be the answer to a trivia question, just as Al Downing is the footnote answer to another question: Who gave up Homer No. 715 to Hank Aaron?
Okay. Let the basketball gods have their little laugh. It was Bobby Knight, a coach of, well, pretty legendary status himself, who was supposed to become number 877 on the Dean's list--a matchup that March Madness fans and the Columbia Broadcasting System were aching for. Two giants.