Showdown: Big-time rivalry battle set as CU Buffs visit No. 20 CSU Rams

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Luke O’Brien has always seen both sides of the rivalry.

Both of O’Brien’s parents, as well as his sister, went to Colorado State. On the other hand his uncle was a Ralphie handler during the Colorado football program’s early 1990s heyday, and O’Brien himself, of course, has bled black and gold for 82 games over three-plus seasons in Boulder.

It’s backgrounds like that, in addition to the myriad storylines and stakes at play, that will make the 131st edition of the Colorado-Colorado State men’s basketball rivalry a special one Wednesday night at Moby Arena in Fort Collins.

“This is a very personal game, not because of the guys on the team, but it’s a state pride thing,” O’Brien said. “Being from Colorado, growing up, it’s always been CU-CSU. I went to a lot of football games. Not so much basketball CU-CSU, but I went to a lot of football games. I know how crazy it gets, so I’m just excited. I know there’s so much pride that goes into this, and I’m telling the guys right now that those guys are taking it just as serious and I know they’re going to be ready, especially after last year. I know Moby is going to be rocking.”

Both teams have put together lights-out starts at home, but it is the Rams who have the stronger early resume otherwise. While the Buffs managed just a split of their two games at the Sunshine Slam last week, dropping out of this week’s Associated Press top 25, the Rams pulled off the Thanksgiving Day shocker in college basketball with a 21-point win against then-No. 8 Creighton.

That win vaulted the Rams to No. 20 in this week’s top 25, and for the first time in the history of the rivalry CSU will be the ranked team at tipoff.

Although CU defeated the Rams handily at home last year, none of CU’s current players were on the roster when the Buffs last visited CSU on Dec. 13, 2019. For CU players like O’Brien and fellow Colorado native Julian Hammond III, getting their teammates up to speed on the intensity of the rivalry has been part of the game prep.

“They a great team. They beat No. 8 Creighton by 20 on a neutral floor,” Hammond said. “We’re just excited to get this opportunity. In-state rivalry. We want to be the best team in the state, and we want to go out there and prove that to everybody.”

While the Buffs will get their first look at former teammate Nique Clifford, who has enjoyed a fine start with the Rams after transferring to CSU, Wednesday’s matchup will feature a showdown of premier point guards between CU’s KJ Simpson and CSU’s Isaiah Stevens.

Stevens, who started against the Buffs during CU’s last trip to Fort Collins in 2019, is averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 assists and was brilliant in the win against Creighton, posting 20 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Simpson bounced back from an off-night in last week’s loss against Florida State to record 15 points, six rebounds and five assists in Sunday’s home win against Iona.

Thanks in part to the torrid starts from the field both teams have enjoyed on their respective home courts, Stevens and Simpson both have posted high assist totals while protecting the ball. Stevens owns an assist-to-turnover rate of 3.92. Simpson isn’t far behind at 3.86.

“Isaiah Stevens is one of the best guards in America,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “The matchup between he and KJ will be a heck of a matchup. KJ is a great player in his own right. Those two guys going head-to-head will be worth the price of admission.”

CU Buffs men’s basketball at No. 20 Colorado State Rams

TIPOFF: Wednesday, 7 p.m., Moby Arena, Fort Collins.

TV/RADIO: CBS Sports Network/KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM (Also K99.1 FM in Fort Collins)

RECORDS: Colorado 5-1; Colorado State 6-0.

COACHES: Colorado State — Niko Medved, 6th season (98-64, 177-151 overall). Colorado — Tad Boyle, 14th season (277-173, 333-239 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado State — G Isaiah Stevens, 6-0, Gr. (17.5 ppg, 7.8 apg, .588 FG%); F Joel Scott, 6-7, Gr. (14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, .547 FG%); G Nique Clifford, 6-6, Sr. (13.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, .638 FG%); F Patrick Cartier, 6-8, Gr. (10.5 ppg, .522 FG%). Colorado — G KJ Simpson, 6-2, Jr. (18.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.5 apg); F Tristan da Silva, 6-9, Sr. (15.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, .579 FG%); F Cody Williams, 6-8, Fr. (11.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, .583 FG%); F J’Vonne Hadley, 6-6, Sr. (10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, .600 FG%); G Julian Hammond III, 6-2, Jr. (10.0 ppg, 2.5 apg, .500 3%).

NOTES: The game is sold out. Moby Arena’s capacity is 8,082. … Cartier’s status is uncertain for CSU after he exited the win against Creighton late due to an injury. … CU has won the past three matchups and leads the series 92-38. … Under Boyle, the Buffs are 7-4 against the Rams, including a 3-2 mark  in Fort Collins. … CU is seeking its first win against a ranked foe in a true road game since a 48-47 win at No. 19 Oregon on Feb. 7, 2013. … Colorado has shot .481 from 3-point range (37-for-77) in its four home games but went 8-for-30 (.267) from the arc in two games at the Sunshine Slam last week in Daytona Beach, Fla. … CSU owns a defensive field goal percentage of .286. … This is CU’s only true road game of the nonconference schedule. … The Buffs went 2-4 against ranked teams last year, although one of those wins was against Tennessee on what officially was a neutral floor in Nashville. … CU returns home on Sunday to host Pepperdine (3 p.m., Pac-12 Network).

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