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NIT run could set stage for bigger things from youthful CU Buffs

CU hosts St. Bonaventure in first round

 University of Colorado Boulder’s Julian Hammond II scores against  Arizona State during a Pac-12 game in Boulder on February 24, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
University of Colorado Boulder’s Julian Hammond II scores against Arizona State during a Pac-12 game in Boulder on February 24, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The NIT can be a tricky sort of consolation prize in college basketball.

In many cases, a strong NIT run, particularly from a young team, can set the stage for bigger things the following season. That has happened twice for the Colorado Buffaloes during head coach Tad Boyle’s tenure. And CU can look to their neighbors to the north for a more recent example, as Colorado State backed a run to the Final Four in last year’s NIT with an NCAA Tournament season this year.

Yet there is another side to this equation as well. Often veteran teams relegated to the NIT after harboring NCAA Tournament aspirations sleepwalk through their first round game and meet an early exit.

The Buffs have experienced both sides of this reality in their past three NIT appearances. Given the youthful rotation and an impressive late-season surge, Boyle is confident his club’s focus and approach won’t be an issue when CU hosts St. Bonaventure in an NIT first-round game on Tuesday night.

“They really enjoy each other’s company. They’re very close,” Boyle said. “They really love playing together. We’ve just got great synergy on this team. You can’t force that as a coach. I wish there was a way you can create that. There just isn’t. At least that not I’m aware of, to get a group to genuinely come together and just enjoys each other.”

In Boyle’s first season of 2010-11, the Buffs were snubbed from the NCAA Tournament field and took out their frustration on their NIT foes, winning three home games to reach the NIT Final Four. The following year, the Buffs won the Pac-12 Conference tournament and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1997.

Fifth-year senior Evan Battey played a part in a similar run in 2019 when the Buffs reached the NIT quarterfinals. CU won 21 games the following season and was in line for an NCAA bid when the tournament was canceled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CU experienced a much different NIT fate with the 2016-17 Derrick White-led team. The Buffs struggled with cohesion and chemistry throughout the year, and everything that ailed the Buffs in a season that began with NCAA Tournament expectations was on display during an NIT first-round loss at Central Florida.

While the Buffs certainly fit the mold of a young, up-and-coming squad eyeing bigger things next season,  the Bonnies are a senior-heavy team that finished fourth in the Atlantic 10 after being a unanimous choice to win the league in the conference’s preseason poll (a combined coach and media poll). St. Bonaventure was ranked 23rd in the preseason AP top 25 and climbed to No. 16 in Week 3 before sliding to a fourth-place finish in the A10.

The Buffs and Bonnies have met just once, but chances are there is no film for CU to review from a Buffaloes road win on New Year’s Day in 1942. However, Boyle and his staff might be able to pick the brains of George Mason head coach Kim English, a Boyle assistant on CU’s 2019 NIT quarterfinal team, and former Buffs guard and staff member Nate Tomlinson, one of English’s assistants. The Bonnies lost at George Mason in Atlantic 10 play on Jan. 26.

“We’ll see. Sometimes leagues have policies where they don’t let stuff out,” Boyle said following Sunday’s NIT selection show. “We’ve got a lot of resources. Our staff is very well connected throughout the country. I don’t know anything about St. Bonaventure right now, but I’ll know a lot more in the middle of the afternoon (Monday). It’s one day of prep, for them and for us. I’m sure they’ll be calling everybody in our league as well, and we’ll be calling everybody in their league just trying to get information. We’ll put that together. We’ve got a great staff and we’ve done this before.”

St. Bonaventure Bonnies at CU Buffs men’s basketball

NIT first round

TIPOFF: Tuesday, 9 p.m., CU Events Center.

BROADCAST: TV — ESPN2; Radio — 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: St. Bonaventure 20-9; Colorado 21-11.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 12th season (254-154, 310-220 overall); St. Bonaventure — Mark Schmidt, 15th season (265-194, 347-284 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: St. Bonaventure — G Jalen Adaway, R-Sr., 16.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, .387 3-point percentage; G Jaren Holmes, Sr., 13.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.7 apg; G Kyle Lofton, Sr., 12.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.7 apg; G Dominick Welch, Sr., 12.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg; F/C Osun Osunniyi, Sr., 11.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, .608 field goal percentage. Colorado — F Jabari Walker, So., 14.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg; F Evan Battey, R-Sr., 12.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, .500 3-point percentage; G Keeshawn Barthelemy, R-So., 10.9 ppg, 2.4 apg; F Tristan da Silva, So., 9.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg.

NOTES: Thanks to CU’s 2011 NIT Final Four team and the 2019 quarterfinal team, the Buffs have won five consecutive home games in the NIT…St. Bonaventure was the reigning Atlantic 10 Conference champion (tournament and 2022-21 regular season) but lost last week in the quarterfinals against St. Louis…Battey played in three NIT games during the Buffs’ run to the 2019 quarterfinals, averaging 7.3 points and 4.7 rebounds. He recorded his first career double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in a second-round home win against Norfolk State…Tuesday’s winner will face either Missouri State or top-seeded Oklahoma in the second round on Saturday or Sunday. If the Buffs win and Missouri State pulls an upset, that game would be in Boulder.

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