Sports

Baylor, Colorado carry the flags of their conferences

ALBUQUERQUE -- Sooner or later in this era of rampant conference realignment, a meeting between a current and former Big 12 member had to occur in a high-stakes, postseason setting.

The only questions were who, when and where. The answers: Baylor vs. Colorado, tonight at The Pit (7:40 p.m., TNT).

The winner between the Bears (28-7) and Buffaloes (24-11), the respective No. 3 and No. 11 seeds in the South Regional, will advance to next week's Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. Both will take the court seeking to prove something about their respective leagues, as well as their individual squads.

"There's a lot of conference pride on the line," said Baylor forward Anthony Jones, a senior who came off the bench to score a pivotal 11 points in Thursday's 68-60 victory over South Dakota State. "We need to show them what they left... by going to the Pac-12."

Jones, like the rest of his teammates, clings to the belief that the Big 12 -- which received six bids to the NCAA Tournament -- is one of the nation's top basketball leagues. Colorado, a first-year member of the Pac-12, departed the Big 12 in search of greener financial pastures and greater league stability.

But the move came with a drop-off in perception about the quality of league basketball programs. The Pac-12 received only two berths to the NCAA Tournament and Colorado was the lone team to survive past the first round, thanks to Thursday's 68-64 victory over UNLV.

But Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle has made it clear he does not consider Pac-12 basketball a step down from Big 12 basketball, despite significant evidence to the contrary in this season's college basketball polls and RPI ratings.

"The difference in respect factor is huge. The difference in talent and ability and quality of play is small," Boyle said. "So somewhere there is a disconnect. We have to do a better job of closing that gap between perception and reality."

Asked if the Buffs were carrying the banner for the entire conference against Baylor, Boyle said: "Absolutely. We owe it to the rest of the teams in our league... to play well. The only way you get rid of that stigma is to have better nonconference wins."

A nonconference win over the Bears would give Colorado its first Sweet 16 berth since 1963. Baylor, an Elite Eight team in 2010, joined Kansas and Missouri among Big 12 representatives in the Top 10 of the polls and the RPI ratings throughout most of the regular season.

Boyle's comment about the comparable strengths of the Big 12 and Pac-12, which has had no team in the Top 25 of the weekly polls since November, raised some eyebrows in the Baylor locker room.

"I think the Big 12 is probably the toughest conference to play in, basketball-wise," guard A.J. Walton said. "We'll see what the Pac-12 did for them and they'll see what they're missing in the Big 12."

Evidence to support both viewpoints will be presented tonight. The irony is that Colorado forward Austin Dufault undermined his coach's position by suggesting Baylor is the best team the Buffs have faced this season.

"They're just a really big and athletic team," Dufault said. "Definitely, talent-wise, probably the best team we've played this year. They've got a lot of great guys, [future] NBA guys. But that's why you play the games."

Colorado has won the majority of games played between the schools (15-9), including a 4-1 mark in neutral sites. But Baylor has won four of the last six. Included is a 70-66 triumph in Waco during the Buffs' final season as a Big 12 member on Jan. 29, 2011.

In the estimation of Baylor players, that works to their advantage.

"We'll be prepared... In the past, we've gotten the better of them," Anthony Jones said. "We know their strengths and weaknesses. Playing against a team that used to be in our conference, we've got a better feel for them."

But the Buffs will enter with a five-game winning streak: the four contests that earned them the Pac-12 tournament title, plus Thursday's victory over UNLV. That has provided a change of mindset of a young team, said forward Andre Roberson, a San Antonio resident.

"Our guys are playing well, playing with a lot of confidence, and we're just going to try and keep it rolling," Roberson said. "I feel like we can take down Baylor."

Either way, tonight's winner will be headed to the Sweet 16 as the first school to win a post-season battle between a Big 12 member and a Big 12 expatriate during the realignment era.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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