Tad Boyle's seniors were understandably crestfallen after Colorado's 80-63 loss to Baylor in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night at the Pit.
Carlon Brown, Austin Dufault, Trey Eckloff and Nate Tomlinson will be able to smile some day when they think about the role they played in the rise of CU basketball.
"I'm just very proud of our four seniors and the way they've handled themselves all year," Boyle said after the 2011-12 campaign abruptly ended. "They did this program proud."
As true freshmen under Jeff Bzdelik, Dufault, Eckloff and Tomlinson endured a 9-22 campaign that ended with 11 consecutive defeats.
Over the last two years, the group has experienced the only back-to-back 20-win seasons in program history, a trip to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden last March, the Buffs' first Pac-12 Tournament championship, and the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003.
"I saw the vision when I got there and met Austin and the other guys," Tomlinson said. "We won nine games our first year, and every year we've gotten better. So I think that's a tribute to the guys that are here, the guys that have been through the program, and the coaching staff."
Tomlinson ran Bzdelik's Princeton-style offense for two seasons before adapting to Boyle's fast-break style. Overall, the senior point guard's defense has improved dramatically over the years, although Baylor's Brady Heslip, a sophomore from Burlington, Ontario, was able to knock down several of his nine 3-pointers over CU's Australian import.
During CU's dramatic 63-62 victory over Oregon in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament last week, Tomlinson volunteered to guard Devoe Joseph and held the Ducks' star to 12 points on 6-for-19 shooting, including a miss on the potential game-winner at the buzzer.
"I think our one-point win over Oregon gave us a lot of confidence," Boyle reflected on the run after it ended against the uber-talented Bears. "Then we matched up well with Cal and just got on a roll."
Dufault is one of only 19 players in CU history to finish his career with more than 1,000 points and 500 rebounds. The 6-foot-9 forward from Killdeer, N.D., played in more games (136) than anyone in program history and is second in starts (129) behind former teammate Cory Higgins (131).
"Just looking back at the program as I was getting recruited by them, initially I just had a good opportunity to play, so that was one of the main reasons I chose to go there," Dufault said. "The other reason was just the vision that they had for building the program. It was kind of at a low point and there were a lot of quality guys that were already there like Cory Higgins.
"I came in with Nate, and we just had a vision for building a good program there the right way kind of from the ground up. I think this year has culminated in that."
Brown played at Utah for three seasons before transferring to Boulder last year.
The 6-5 guard from Riverside, Calif., led the team in scoring this season and was named the most outstanding player of the Pac-12 Tournament after averaging 15.8 points and 4.8 rebounds to lead CU to the championship at the Staples Center.
During CU's 68-64 win over UNLV in the second round, Brown's late dunk helped get the team to the finish line for its first NCAA Tournament victory in 15 years.
Dufault had 14 points and Brown added 13 points in the loss to Baylor. Tomlinson did not score or have an assist in his final collegiate game, and Eckloff didn't see any action.
It was a forgettable ending for a group that won't be forgotten at CU.
"First, I want to say thank you to them, the four seniors," freshman guard Askia Booker said at Saturday's postgame press conference in the Pit. "Because we wouldn't be in this position without them."