SAN FRANCISCO -- Arizona junior Nick Johnson couldn't hide his smile when asked if he and the Wildcats consider Colorado a rival in men's basketball.
"Definitely," he said. "You're always going to have the in-state rivalry, but it's really about the rivalries you gain throughout the years. I'd like to think UCLA and us have a little bit of one and we're in the works right now with Colorado."
That Arizona, a traditional power on the national scene, views Colorado as a rival says a lot about how high the CU program has risen in recent years. Ever since Tad Boyle took over as head coach of the Buffaloes before the 2010-11 season, CU basketball has changed its culture -- and the outside perceptions of its program.
"You didn't really hear too much about Colorado (two years ago)," Cal guard Justin Cobbs said. "Now they're a team to be reckoned with, not only in the conference, but in the country."
For years, the CU basketball program was an afterthought -- even in Boulder. From 1970-2011, the Buffs qualified for the NCAA Tournament only twice -- in 1997 and 2003.
When CU joined the Pac-12 Conference in 2011, the other teams in the conference didn't know much about the Buffs, and rightfully so. CU probably should have been invited to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, but wasn't, and heading into the 2011-12 season, the Buffs were picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12.
"I hadn't really followed them too closely before they came into the league," Stanford senior Dwight Powell said. "I knew they had a good basketball program, but I really didn't know too much about them."
That was the general feeling about the Buffs across the conference two years ago.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said it was similar to Arizona and Arizona State joining the old Pac-8 in 1978. He was a player at Washington at the time and remembers the skepticism of those teams joining the conference and whether they could compete.
"We all know what ended up happening with Arizona in basketball," Romar said.
Those same feelings came about two years ago when Colorado and Utah joined the league.
Of course, since then, CU has established itself as one of the elite teams in the conference. The Buffs won the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament in 2012, and they've been to the NCAA Tournament both years they've been in the league.
"Now that we look at it, no one is asking about Colorado anymore," Romar said. "They're on their way to being one of the mainstays of this conference."
On Thursday, the preseason Pac-12 media poll was released and CU was picked to finish third -- barely behind second-place UCLA. One voter picked the Buffs to win the conference title.
"That's something I signed on to try to do, to try to change the culture and try to build the program," CU junior guard Spencer Dinwiddie said. "I think coach Boyle has done a great job. It all starts with recruiting, but he's a heck of a coach. I don't think he gets enough credit sometimes. He really has us buying into a program and a style of play that wins games."
The Buffs have even found a way to compete with the likes of Arizona. They are 3-3 against the Wildcats since joining the Pac-12. Two of the games were decided by two points or less, and another came down to overtime after a controversial call. CU still believes it should have won that game.
No wonder Johnson considers the Buffs to be a rival.
"They're the toughest (team) to play on the road, definitely, in our conference," Johnson said. "With Spencer and Askia (Booker) and the dudes coming back from last year, it's definitely going to be even better this year. I'm looking forward to it."
Johnson said the difficulty of Boulder has nothing to do with the altitude. He and Powell both mentioned CU's impressive crowd.
"The creativity of the student section -- they're always in costumes and just loud in general," Johnson said. "And, just the way the arena is built, it packs you in there and it feels like everybody is coming down on you."
Dinwiddie said it's great to hear that Arizona considers CU a rival, because that's a reflection of how good CU has become.
"We feel like that's the way they should feel, and not in a cocky sense," Dinwiddie said. "We respect them and respect what they've done for the Pac-12 with history and what they bring to the table now, giving us that star power at the front being a top-5 team. But we're a fringe top-25 team and we're saying we're here and we're not going away."
Not any time soon, anyway. The Buffs have worked hard to earn some respect around the Pac-12 and the nation, but they might just be getting started.
"We want to try to win championships," Boyle said. "That's what drives me every day to get up and come to the office and go to work and our players to get up and go to the weight room and go to practice.
"The fact that we've earned some respect is good, but there's still work to be done. We're far from where we want to be."