AUSTIN, Texas -- Brandon Paul and Andre Roberson received most of the media attention here on Thursday.

Paul is statistically one of the best players in Illini history and his team's leading scorer.

Roberson, who is from nearby San Antonio, is the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and the nation's second-leading rebounder.

And Tad Boyle made it know that he plans to start Roberson out on Paul defensively when No. 10 Colorado plays No. 7 Illinois in the East Region bracket of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at the Erwin Center (approximately 2:40 p.m., TNT).

"I want to make one thing crystal clear," first-year Illinois head coach John Groce said. "It's not Roberson versus Paul and Paul versus Roberson, it's Illinois versus Colorado. I think that Brandon, as an older player, understands that. Obviously he's an important part of what we do, just like Roberson is an important part of what Colorado does. So we'll take that for what it's worth."

Paul, a 6-4 senior shooting guard, is averaging 16.6 points this season with backcourt mates D.J. Richardson (12.4 ppg) and Tracy Adams (10.6 ppg) also scoring in double figures.

The Illini (22-12) led the Big Ten in made 3-pointers (7.8 per game) but was eighth in 3-point field goal percentage (.325).


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"They live and die by the three," CU senior guard Sabatino Chen said. "So if they get hot they can be really dangerous."

Neither team should be intimidated by the other.

The Buffs (21-11) won the Charleston Classic in November and defeated NCAA Tournament teams Arizona, Cal, Colorado State and Oregon during the season.

Illinois started the season 12-0 after winning the Maui Invitational and beating Gonzaga on the road before knocking off No. 1 Indiana during a grueling Big Ten slate.

Colorado players huddle during practice Thursday. The Buffs play Illinois on Friday in their NCAA Tournament opener.
Colorado players huddle during practice Thursday. The Buffs play Illinois on Friday in their NCAA Tournament opener. ( Eric Gay )

These two teams are a combined 23-3 against non-conference opponents and 8-2 on neutral courts this season.

"We have played some great teams this year and took some tough losses that might have taken us out of the top 25," CU sophomore guard Askia Booker said. "But we made it to the NCAA Tournament. Ever since I've been here we've made it and we haven't let down the program yet. Hopefully we don't."

Illinois did not get into the Big Dance last season, which led to a coaching change that has worked out for both sides (Bruce Weber led Kansas State to a co-Big 12 regular-season championship, and Groce brought the March Madness back to Champaign).

During last year's NCAA Tournament, Groce guided Ohio, a No. 13 seed, into the Sweet 16.

"It just shows us that if we listen to him and we execute the game plan that he provides for us, it gives us a good opportunity to win," Illinois forward Sam McLaurin said. "He's won with lesser talent and we have the talent to win games in this tournament."

Last year's victory over UNLV in Albuquerque, N.M., was CU's first NCAA Tournament win in 15 years. Boyle is the first coach to guide the program to consecutive appearances in the tournament since Sox Walseth 50 years ago.

"It's just awesome to see where this program has come in such a short period of time," said CU junior center Shane Harris-Tunks, who practiced on Thursday and is medically cleared to play against Illinois after suffering a concussion at the Pac-12 Tournament. "From not even making the postseason my freshman year to going to back-to-back NCAAs is just a testament to how hard people have worked in this program."

Returning players like Roberson, Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie have said the goal is not just to beat Illinois, but to extend the season into next week's East Regional semifinals round in Washington D.C.

"We definitely have a vision for that," Roberson said. "That is what we are building upon and trying to take the next step forward. ... I feel like we can make it to the Sweet 16 and maybe even further."

The Roberson vs. Paul matchup will be important, but the best team will survive and advance.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanThorburn

CU men's hoops preview

FRIDAY: The No. 10 Colorado Buffaloes (21-11) play the No. 7 Illinois Illini (22-12) in a second-round East Region game at approximately 2:40 p.m. at the Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.

BROADCAST: Television on TNT with Tim Brando (play-by-play) and Mike Gminski (analyst). Radio on KKZN (760 AM) with Mark Johnson (play-by-play) and Jeb Putzier (color). Follow on Twitter: @RyanThorburn.

CU STORY LINES: The Buffs are making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in 50 years (1961-62, 1962-63) after receiving the program's first at-large berth in 10 years (2002-03). ... This is the first time CU has ever won 20 or more games in three consecutive seasons and appeared in a postseason tournament three consecutive seasons. ... Shane Harris-Tunks (concussion) has been cleared to play and practiced on Thursday. ... The Buffs are 4-1 on neutral courts this season and 9-2 dating back to last year's Pac-12 Tournament. ... Andre Roberson will start out guarding Illinois star guard Brandon Paul.

ILLINOIS STORY LINES: The Illini won the Maui Invitational, defeated Gonzaga in Spokane and got off to a 12-0 start before finishing 8-10 in the grueling Big Ten and receiving an at-large berth. ... First-year Illinois coach John Groce guided Ohio to the Sweet 16 last year. ... This is Illinois' 11th NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 14 years. ... Paul and Mark Smith (1978-81) are the only two players in Illini history to reach career milestones of 1,600 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 150 steals. ... The Illini are 7-1 in games decided by five points or less.

KEY STAT: The Buffs and Illini are a combined 23-3 against non-conference opponents this year and 8-2 on neutral courts.

COACHES: Boyle is 69-37 in his third season at CU. Groce is 22-12 in his first season at Illinois.

SERIES: Illinois leads 3-1. CU's only victory over the Illini was 90-81 on Dec. 12, 1960, in Boulder. The programs have not met since 1987.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Colorado -- F Andre Roberson, 6-7, Jr., 10.9 ppg, 11.3 rpg; F Xavier Johnson, 6-6, Fr., 9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg; F Josh Scott, 6-10, Fr., 10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg; G Spencer Dinwiddie, 6-6, So., 15.6 ppg, 3.2 apg; G Askia Booker, 6-1, So., 12.4 ppg, 2.2 apg. Illinois -- G Tracy Abrams, 6-1, So., 10.6 ppg, 3.3 apg; G D.J. Richardson, 6-3, Sr., 12.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg; G Brandon Paul, 6-4, Sr., 16.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg; F Tyler Griffey, 6-9, Sr., 7.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg; F/C Nnanna Egwu, 6-11, So., 6.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg.

UP NEXT: If the Buffs win they will play the winner of the No. 2 Miami/No. 15 Pacific game on Sunday at the Erwin Center. The game time will be determined by the television networks after Friday's games.