KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the dim light of a Kemper Arena hallway Friday night, Eddie Sutton stopped cold.
The weathered Oklahoma State coach eyed Colorado coach Ricardo Patton and addressed him in a deep Stillwater drawl.
“Please tell your men that, boy, they played a hell of a game,” Sutton said. “I tell you what, you ought to look forward to next season now, with all those players you have. You’re going to have a good team.”
Patton, embarrassed at the comment, could only laugh, and said, “All right, coach,” as if questioning the sincerity of a man who has spent 43 years of his life on the bench and will most certainly be welcomed into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
But when Patton examined the comment further, perhaps he realized its worth. In two days at the Big 12 Tournament, the Buffs not only built momentum from a mulch pit with a win against Texas on Thursday and an 87-85 loss to No. 10 OSU on Friday, but Patton took a big step toward convincing Colorado basketball fans that he’s not crazy, naïve or incompetent.
It must be a welcome reprieve for a man who, less than a week earlier, apologized publicly for a team that seemed to get worse as the season advanced. But even though he’s earned a bit of wiggle room from his critics’ taunts and giggles, Patton must now convince his public the late surge was no mirage.
The need is immediate. He just completed the first year of his three-year contract, a deal that doesn’t require him to meet any specific performance goals, such as tournament berths or winning records. But if he expects to continue beyond the summer of 2007, he must succeed in making both the school and the state excited about CU basketball.
And if he doesn’t take that stride next season, he should probably move on.
The Buffs, whose most glaring weakness this past season was youth and inexperience, don’t graduate anybody other than senior Mac Mattingly, who played a total of three minutes.
They will have 10 seniors on next-year’s team, not counting reserve guard Billy Boidock, making them one of the most experienced teams in the nation.
Freshman spectacle Richard Roby will have spent a summer adding bulk and point man Marcus Hall will have added polish to his exceptional but unrefined talent.
And if forward Julius Ashby stays healthy and plays to the level he did Thursday and Friday, the talented Buffs will have an inside presence — the lack of which probably cost them at least three conference games this season.
Most importantly, last year’s group of youngsters and transfers should finally realize the level of play necessary to fight in the Big 12 conference, because they showed it last week.
They no longer have an excuse.
And that’s fine with Patton, who claims he saw his team’s potential throughout, even though it maddened him with inconsistency.
“I feel better in the regard that this is the team I knew we had,” he said. “But of course we didn’t show it, and I can certainly understand why no one believes that we were better than our record.”
“Hopefully this tournament is a sign of maturity ... I think what this says is what I’ve been trying to say all along, that the future is bright for Colorado basketball.”
Although that statement no longer sounds ridiculous, although CU fans peeked through the woodwork at their TVs for a few hours last week, the window of optimism will close as quickly as it opened if this team doesn’t compete for a berth in the NCAA Tournament berth next season.
So give Patton credit for knowing something we all didn’t and give him a break for now. But what he earned last week needs to last.
Otherwise, it’s time to start over once his two years are up.
Bill Wilson can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 298, or by e-mail at email@example.com.