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Rocky Mountain High
Colorado is peaking in the Big 12
Asked about the difference between this year's Colorado team and last year's, Faye Billups, the mother of Buffaloes sophomore point guard Chauncey Billups, looks around the 11,198-seat Coors Events Center in Boulder and points to her ears. "Earplugs," she says, laughing. "I need to purchase earplugs. It gets so loud in here now, and we're just not used to it."
Neither is anyone who's familiar with Colorado men's basketball used to the suddenly limited ticket availability, the tight parking around the arena or—most unusual—the Buffaloes' incessant winning. After last Saturday's 70-45 victory over then No. 8 Iowa State, which was without leading scorer Dedric Willoughby (strained right hamstring) and, for most of the game, coach Tim Floyd, who was ejected in the first half after arguing a call, Colorado was 5-0 in the Big 12, 14-3 overall and ranked 18th in the nation, its first appearance in the Top 25 since 1969. "This is what I envisioned when I decided to come here," says Chauncey, Faye's oldest son and the biggest reason for the Buffaloes' brilliance. "Having it loud, having it jam-packed, I knew that could all happen at Colorado."
Anyone else who claims to have foreseen this emergence should not be trusted. A year ago the Buffaloes were in the midst of their 10th losing season in 12 years and drew roughly 4,000 fans to most home games. And two years ago, when the 6'3" Billups, a three-time Colorado high school player of the year and the state's most esteemed schoolboy player ever, ignored the advice of his buddies in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood and signed with the Buffaloes so he could be close to his family, his friends—and observers across the nation—said he was nuts.
Billups hasn't turned the Buffaloes around single-handedly. His strong supporting cast includes senior forwards Fred Edmonds, a childhood pal and high school teammate of Billups's, and Martice Moore, a 6'7" transfer from Georgia Tech who was the 1993 ACC Rookie of the Year. And the no-nonsense style of coach Ricardo Patton, who was promoted from assistant when easygoing but ineffective Joe Harrington resigned a year ago, has made the team jell. "Under coach Patton we've had to grow up fast and become disciplined," says Billups. "My game has matured, and my shot selection has gotten much better." Thanks to Billups, who was averaging 18.4 points and 6.0 assists a game through last weekend, a team that had a horrendous 4-90 conference road record between 1983-84 and 1995-96 is now fearsome when visiting Big 12 opponents. Led by Billups's 28 points, Colorado won 87-78 at Missouri on Jan. 7. Four nights later Billups poured in 29—two of them coming on a game-winning buzzer-beater—as the Buffaloes snapped then No. 20 Texas Tech's 35-game home winning streak.
Billups has been a star on every team he has played with and has seen his name in the papers on nearly a daily basis since ninth grade. But he felt the backhand of fame last January when he got arrested for swiping five video-rental coupons from the campus bookstore. Knowing the story would make the evening news, Billups immediately called his parents to apologize. He later wrote an open letter of apology to the university chancellor and the student body, promising to "never make a mistake like that again." His punishment included 16 hours of community service and a year's probation. Despite his promise Billups got in trouble again in October, this time for charging to the university $32 in long-distance calls. He was suspended from the team for the first three games of the season. "Those were mistakes, and I regret them," he says of these episodes. "But I think they were blessings in disguise. Now I am fully aware that even time I do anything, good or bad, somebody's watching."
And if the Buffaloes continue to succeed, it won't be just a whole state watching, but a whole nation.
Big Man on Campus
Remember "Big Country" Bryant Reeves, the former Oklahoma State center now with the NBA Grizzlies? Allow us to introduce "Big Continent" Brad Millard of St. Man's, so dubbed by post-player guru Pete Newell because, says Newell, "he's much bigger than Big Country." In fact, next to the 7'3", 335-pound Millard, the 7-foot, 275-pound Big Country is, well, small town.