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Rivalry battle against CSU Rams could provide festive atmosphere for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Buffs wing Nique Clifford, a Colorado Springs native, is ready for his first battle against the CSU Rams. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Buffs wing Nique Clifford, a Colorado Springs native, is ready for his first battle against the CSU Rams. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

It probably has been the most exciting half-week surrounding the Colorado athletic department in recent memory.

Renewing a passionate rivalry is likely to only add to the fun. For the first time since 2019, the CU men’s basketball team will square off against Colorado State when the Rams visit the Events Center on Thursday night.

CSU, an NCAA Tournament team last season, is coming off a home loss against Northern Colorado but has only recently welcomed back game-changing point guard Isaiah Stevens. CU is off to a 4-5 start, the worst nine-game record in coach Tad Boyle’s 13 seasons with the Buffs, but the quality of that early schedule has kept CU in a competitive spot in the initial set of NET rankings.

For fans eager to get together and collectively celebrate the arrival of Coach Prime as CU’s new football coach, a hoops showdown against the Rams could provide the perfect atmosphere.

“These guys know. Even though they haven’t experienced it, they know what this game means to the state of Colorado,” Boyle said. “Our Colorado guys I know are dialed-in. It’s a big game. But I’m concerned about Colorado right now. I’m not as concerned about the game as I am with our team and where we’re at mentally execution-wise. But we’ve had a couple good days of practice, so we’ll see what happens.

“It should be a great environment and the guys are excited.”

The Buffs boast three scholarship players from Colorado in Nique Clifford, Luke O’Brien and Julian Hammond III. The only native Coloradoan on CSU’s roster is walk-on Nick Bassett, a former standout at Cheyenne Mountain and an old friend of Clifford’s from Colorado Springs (CU also has an in-state walk-on in Monarch graduate Greg Gerhardt).

While no current CU player has ever faced the Rams, CSU has three players that faced the Buffs three years ago including Stevens, who has returned to the Rams rotation after missing the first seven games due to a foot injury.

“It’s a huge, old rivalry, and we know that coming in. We know we’ve got to go take care of business,” Clifford said. “But we’re excited. It’s really just another game on our schedule and an opportunity for us to bounce back from our two losses in a row. We’re very excited.”

Stevens has played like his old self in the two games since his return, averaging 16.5 points and 4.0 assists while shooting 50% from the floor (4-for-7 3-pointers). Even without Stevens, the Rams have featured an efficient offense that, through Tuesday’s games, ranked seventh in the nation with a 1.76 assist-to turnover ratio. CU, by comparison, owns more turnovers (137) than assists (125) and ranked 265th in the nation (out of 352) with an assist-to-turnover rate of .912 (through Tuesday).

“Isaiah Stevens is probably the most underrated point guard in the country,” Boyle said. “He plays with unbelievable pace and confidence. A calmness about him. He’s a really good college player. Just look at his efficiency numbers. He is an efficient, efficient point guard. And then (he’s) surrounded by guys that can make shots. They’ve got guys that can shoot the ball. CSU has a nice team. They’re a little undersized, but they’re used to being undersized so that doesn’t concern them. We’re not overlooking these guys, I can promise you that.”

Colorado State Rams at CU Buffs men’s basketball

TIPOFF: Thursday, 7 p.m., CU Events Center.

TV/RADIO: TV — ESPN2; Radio — KOA 850 AM.

RECORDS: Colorado State 6-3; Colorado 4-5.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 13th season (258-160, 314-226 overall). Colorado State — Niko Medved, 5th season (83-49, 162-136 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado State — G Isaiah Stevens, 6-0, Sr. (16.5 ppg, 4.0 apg); G John Tonje, 6-5, Sr. (15.0, 6.1 rpg); F Patrick Cartier, 6-5, Gr. (12.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .581 field goal percentage); G Isaiah Rivera, 6-5, Jr. (11.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, .544 field goal percentage). Colorado — G KJ Simpson, 6-2, So. (16.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.4 apg); F Tristan da Silva, 6-9, Jr. (12.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg); F J’Vonne Hadley, 6-6, Jr. (10.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, .556 field goal percentage).

NOTES: CU is hosting a toy drive to benefit the A Precious Child, a Broomfield-based organization that helps underprivileged children. Fans are encouraged to bring unwrapped new toys to collection bins on Thursday night that will be posted at each entrance of the Events Center…Stevens and Tonje both played for CSU in the teams’ last meeting on Dec. 13, 2019, a 56-48 CU win in Fort Collins. Tonje went scoreless in nine minutes off the bench, but Stevens started and played 34 minutes, recording 10 points and three assists. No Rams player has played in Boulder…The Buffs lead the all-time series 91-38, with a 54-9 advantage in Boulder. CU won the last meeting at home (86-80 on Dec. 1, 2018) but the Rams won during their previous two visits to Boulder in 2016 and 2014…Two seasons ago, the Buffs made a run at the NCAA record for free throw percentage before settling on a team and Pac-12 record mark of .819. After going 39-for-69 in the past four games (.565), CU’s season percentage has dipped to .648 which, through Tuesday, ranked 302nd in the nation (out of 352)…The Buffs have gone 6-4 against CSU under Boyle…With finals week looming, the Buffs will be idle for a week before hosting North Alabama on Dec. 15.