On Monday night, I spent 20 minutes chatting over the phone with Colorado senior forward Austin Dufault. The 2008 Killdeer High School graduate and former North Dakota Mr. Basketball winner leads his team into their first NCAA tournament game since 2003 when they face UNLV at 8 p.m. Thursday at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.
Below is our complete interview. In bold is a brief overview of the questions I asked Austin. Make sure to check out my feature story on Dufault in Wednesday’s edition of The Dickinson Press.
In an video interview with Colorado’s sports information department after it the team’s seed in the NCAA Tournament was announced, the first word out of Dufault’s mouth was ‘Finally.’ He explains why winning the Pac-12 title was such an exhausting journey and how good it feels just to be in the big dance.
It didn’t really sink in, honestly, until after the game. It was such a blur. When it really hit was the selection show. Last year, we watched the whole show and didn’t see our name come up. This year we waited for about five minutes and we were one of the first teams that was called. Just having that feeling that you’re in and that it’s real and it’s actually happening. It’s incredible. It’s been a long four years of hard work to finally get to this situation. It’s all kind of paid off in the last week.
The end to this season has been a blessing for Buffs, who weren’t expected to do much in what was viewed by many pundits as a rebuilding year. Instead, Dufault exceled in his final season. He is averaging 10.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, both career bests.
There’s always issues with playing out of position, our team struggling on the road. We could never really get over the hump as a team and individually. This year, it’s all just come together. That’s not to say there wasn’t any struggles along the way this year at all, or that there wasn’t any high moments in the past either. I’ve had a lot of fun the four years I’ve been playing here. This year has been something really special just to see the big goals you set as a player finally be realized. You’re building every year for four years, going through the process to get to this point. Now it’s going to be a lot of fun to play in this tournament. It’s really exciting.
Dufault’s family — father Rich, mother Karen and brother Zach — moved from Killdeer to Greeley, Colo., before his freshman year so they could be closer, leaving only sister Amber behind while she attended North Dakota State. That bold move by the family was shocking at the time, but Austin says it has been one of the biggest reasons behind his success at Colorado.
It’s been huge. I know that I definitely couldn’t have done it without them being out here and supporting me, just through the highs and the lows. Them being out here, being able to see their faces after games has been incredible. I don’t know if I’d have stayed out here for all four years if not for them being here with me and them always being encouraging and having them here to support me.
Like any player who has had struggles in a collegiate sport, Dufault said there were times when he wondered if he’d made a mistake by choosing Colorado instead of one of his other choices, including North Dakota State, which reached the NCAA tournament his freshman year. Instead, he’s leaving the Colorado program better than how he found it.
I’d lie if I said that I didn’t. Going through all the ups and downs, it’s difficult. There’s always doubt that creeps into your mind. What if I would have done this or that? Looking back on my career, I’m pretty proud of everything I accomplished and proud that I’ve helped our team build and the program build. I can look back on it and now be thought of as one of the founding guys for where our program is headed. Hopefully it will continue to build and we’ll have more 20-win seasons and tournament appearances from now on.
The one thing that made me question it was when coach Bzdelik left after my sophomore year. That was tough, but coach Boyle came in and really stressed keeping it together as a group.
Last season, Colorado was thought to be a bubble team that would receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament based on its quality of wins and it’s personnel, including NBA draft lottery pick Alec Burks, who now plays for the Utah Jazz. They were left out by the tournament committed though and ended up reaching the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament. I asked Austin if the team’s snub was a driving force behind their Pac-12 title run last week.
Absolutely. I know for the older guys it did, who had been around and were a part of that team that got snubbed last year. We took that as a huge motivation. We talked about it every day in the summer when we were working out, lifting, doing conditioning. Talking about it constantly, we just reminded ourselves about that feeling and talked about how we never wanted to feel that way again. Just putting that chip on our shoulder. And then in the preseason, we were picked 11th in our conference. People who picked it had a right to pick it because we lost 80 percent of our scoring, or whatever it was. But again, the guys that were returning, we thought to ourselves, we could play too. We could really step up this year. … Collectively, as a group, we wanted to focus on going out the right way in our senior year.
In beating Arizona 53-51 for the Pac-12 championship, Dufault set Colorado’s school record for most games played. He calls it his proudest accomplishment.
That’s probably the one thing I’m most proud of, that’s probably my proudest accomplishment. I’ve never missed a game since I’ve been in college. I’ve only not maybe started three or four of them. Just being able to say I’ve played in every game in my career, and the most games played in CU history is something I’m really proud of. That’s the attitude I’ve always had. I’ll play if I’m sick or I’m injured if I can. If I have the ability to be on the floor, I want to be on the floor. That’s definitely my proudest accomplishment leaving CU… with the individual games record.
I asked Austin to describe the Pac-12 tournament.
It was just a whirlwind. Starting with the Utah game, we just really struggled. For the last few games (of the regular season), we really struggled. The Oregon trip was really bad for us, we dropped both of those. We just weren’t playing the way we were all year.
For the first half of the Utah game, we were kind of playing the same way. We were struggling defensively, we were kind of lackadaisical. At halftime, we just talked about how nobody is going to roll over for us. Utah doesn’t care that we beat them twice. If we’re going to want to win, we’re going to have to play harder, it’s as simple as that. From that halftime, moving through the tournament, we just dialed in and did whatever we had to do to win games.
The Oregon game was another close one and came down to a last shot again, just like at our place. Winning those first two games really gave us confidence. After that, we knew we could beat Cal. We really like that matchup.
Dufault played a major role in defeating Arizona as the team seemed to play stronger offensively when he was in the game. However, in the final minute, he contributed to a turnover and missed two free throws – both instances that could have lost the game for Colorado.
With Arizona, anything could have happened. The last minute of the game was such a blur. Nate (Tomlinson) threw that pass to me, we turned it over and it went out of bounds. They went down and scored, I went to the line and, honestly, both free throws felt good. One was a little long, I tried to take a little bit off of it and the next one was a little bit short.
But Nate really bailed me out. He did a great job defending on (Arizona standout guard Kyle) Fogg that last possession. As soon as the ball went up in the air, I wanted to do anything to get the rebound or make sure I knocked it away from anybody wanting to get the offensive rebound. I tipped it out right as the buzzer went off.
That’s the most relief I’ve ever felt in my life, just to hear that final buzzer and see the scoreboard. To know that we had won and that we were going to the NCAA tournament, it’s just indescribable. I just had to pray and thank God that we won. After that it was a celebration with my teammates. It was four years in the making.
After the game, Dufault dropped to the floor on both knees and put his head down as his teammates mobbed him and each other in celebration.
I just dropped to the floor and just thanked God for blessing me and allowing us to advance. The whole week, I’d just been really dialed in on trying to play the right way. The last minute, I made a couple silly mistakes that I guess I hadn’t really made the whole tournament. Luckily, our team backed me up. That’s one thing about our team this year. Whenever guys would make mistakes, somebody stepped up it seemed like — especially in the tournament — and we covered for each other.
Just the end of that game, the last minute, was just typical of our team and it came down to a defensive stop and came down to my teammates having my back and stepping up at the right moment.
At Killdeer High School, the biggest championship the Cowboys ever won during Dufault’s tenure was the District 14 title.
It kind of felt like my whole life, I was always trying to win a championship. In North Dakota Class B, winning the state championship obviously is the greatest thing you can do. But the next thing to that is winning a regional championship so you can go to the state tournament and have an opportunity. It’s so hard in the state of North Dakota to do that. In five years, the teams that I was on, we were never able to accomplish that. That’s one thing that really bothered me leaving high school basketball was that I never had an opportunity to play in a state tournament.
One thing in college that I either wanted to do was make the NCAA Tournament and be able to play in that, or win a conference tournament and be able to say that I won a championship. Now that I’ve accomplished that, there’s nothing like being able to win a championship and share it with your teammates. All the hard work you put into it, the end result is just wonderful, being able to be a champion.
At the time of our interview, Dufault said the Buffs hadn’t spent much time scouting their first-round opponent, No. 23-ranked UNLV. However, he said they know quite a bit about the Runnin’ Rebels.
They’re a team that really likes to get up and down, kind of like us. They play pressure defense. They try to get as much pressure on the ball to force turnovers. That leads into their offense and they shoot a lot of threes. As far as their big guys, they’re really athletic and active. Defensively, we’re just going to have to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year — be really solid, and then offensively, take care of the ball.
One thing with us is that me and Andre inside are pretty versatile We can play inside and outside. If we can get their big guys away from the basket out on the perimeter with ball screens and stuff like that, we have a chance to be really effective.
Most pundits are picking UNLV to win the game on Thursday. Dufault said it’s just another case of the Buffs being written off and adding fuel to their fire.
It’s kind of ironic because the entire year, in huddles and in practices and stuff, we’d always say they picked us 11th (in the Pac-12). Now we’re an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament, so it’s kind of fitting. Nobody really expects much of us again. Everyone is talking about how it’s a good matchup, but they expect UNLV to win. We’re coming in as underdogs like we have the whole year. I think we kind of thrive in that role, being the team that nobody thinks will do much. If we stick to our identity and what we do well, we’ll give ourselves a great chance to win.
Dufault has expressed his intentions to give playing overseas a shot after his career at Colorado ends. He said that hasn’t changed.
Absolutely. Just a little idea, I haven’t thought too much about it, but after the season ends, I’ll probably take some time off. There’s a few agents that had been in contact with me. … Nate Tomlinson, he has a lot of connections overseas. His dad is a professional coach in China. He knows a lot of agents, all that type of stuff, different coaches overseas. Once the season ends, I’ll probably just take some time off and find an agent that can represent me and start looking at a job from there.
As far as going to workout camps and stuff like that, I have no idea how that all works. See if anything like that pops up. There’s always little camps that happen in Vegas where Euro teams come over and watch guys work out. We’ll see what happens, but right now I’m just focused on finishing the year.