ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As a high school senior, Carlon Brown had all but made up his mind.
He was going to choose to play his college basketball at UNLV instead of Utah.
All the bouncy 6-foot-5 Riverside, Calif., native wanted to do was check out the campus. Former Rebels coach Lon Kruger and his staff had worked Brown hard for months, he felt comfortable with everything he’d heard about UNLV, and now just needed to check it out in person before setting a decision in stone.
Then, on the day he was set drive up and visit campus, the program’s last available scholarship vanished.
It was spoken for by current UNLV fifth-year senior guard Kendall Wallace.
“That was the last I heard from them,” Brown said with a laugh. “It was a heartbreak, but I moved on.”
While Wallace would go on to have a solid career as a key role player off of the bench at UNLV, which will come to an end at the 2012 NCAA tournament, Brown’s college journey has had a few more twists and turns.
Brown, the team’s leading scorer at 12.6 points per game, leads 11-seed Colorado (23-11) into Thursday night’s NCAA tournament showdown with 6-seed UNLV (26-8) at 7 p.m. at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.
For three seasons at Utah, he made a habit of getting up for games against UNLV. And as a junior, despite having his two-year starting role yanked from him early in the season, he delivered with 15.3 points per game in three meetings with the Rebels.
The signature showing came in a 66-61 upset of UNLV in Salt Lake City on Feb. 17, 2010, when he slashed to the rim at will while scoring 18 points in 29 minutes off of the bench.
After that 2009-10 season, though, despite his consistent success in the Mountain West, it was time for a change. He was one of a slew of players who fled from Jim Boylen’s program before what would end up being the coach’s final season at the helm before he was fired. The program had gone from Mountain West tournament champs to the verge of shambles in just one year.
“I just didn’t feel like the way the program was headed and what they wanted to do, I didn’t feel a part of that movement,” he said. “I was a starter there for two years, my third year I was being brought off the bench, and I just didn’t want to deal with being in a bad situation my senior year, losing and being unhappy.
“I made the best decision for me at that time in my career, and that was to move.”
He opted for Tad Boyle’s program on the rise, which in his first season went 24-14, was a notable snub from the NCAA tournament field and advanced to the NIT semifinals in New York City. The Buffs lost a good chunk of its core and entered what would be seen by many as a rebuilding year, with Brown as a senior at the center of that movement.
Brown said that when choosing a new home, he wanted to go to a program that had a shot at an NCAA tournament berth, and until a week ago, Colorado had none, finishing fifth in the regular season in a brutally weak Pac-12.
Then came a four-wins-in-four-days romp through the Pac-12 tournament, netting them a surprise automatic berth.
“It meant everything to me and the fellow seniors,” he said. “That’s why I kept telling these guys I wanted it, and I proved it just by playing hard and giving everything I had. It kind of sparked energy within this team. Everybody just picked up where we left off, and everyday it just seemed like we got better in the tournament.”
Brown earned MVP honors in the Pac-12 tourney, averaging 15.8 points per game, while the Buffs were led in a title game victory by another former UNLV recruit — freshman guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
Dinwiddie scored 14 points last Saturday in Los Angeles, going 4-for-4 from deep in the process. He, like Brown, will be relied upon heavily again if Colorado is going to score an upset to open the NCAA tourney.
“They’re gonna play really fast, and they’re going to shoot a lot of threes,” Dinwiddie said. “It’s a great system to play in, a lot of fun, and we like to play fast, too. We play similar styles, but we also like to get down and play defense. We’re built on our defensive rebounding. We’re going to stick to those principles and try to win this game.”
Dinwiddie was a two-year high school teammate of current UNLV junior guard Justin Hawkins at Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft. He also teamed there with current UNLV redshirt and USC transfer Bryce Jones.
A combo guard in high school who could do a bit of everything, Dinwiddie was being recruited to UNLV as Kruger’s potential point guard of the future.
Hawkins even hosted his 6-foot-5 friend. on his recruiting visit to Las Vegas as a high school senior, but he ultimately chose Colorado over UNLV and Harvard, citing a desire to fulfill his dream of playing in the Pac-12 and the opportunity to play heavy minutes right away.
Dinwiddie is averaging 10.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game this year for Colorado, shooting a team-best 43.6 percent from long range. He also plays 27.5 minutes per game — a luxury he might not have been afforded right away at UNLV, no matter who the head coach was.
“It’s gonna be great,” Dinwiddie said of the matchup. “It’s a dream come true. it’s one of those things you talk about when you’re growing up, and for it to actually be happening, to be playing each other in the NCAA tournament, it’s big.”
While Dinwiddie will get a chance to go head-to-head again with Hawkins, who he said taught him how to become a leader within the Taft program, Brown knows that he’ll see several familiar faces from his Utah days come Thursday night.
And he can’t wait for the chance to shine against them one more time.
“They still live up to their name as far as being the Runnin’ Rebels, they still have the same guys, and had no turnover (when Kruger left),” Brown said. “I’m looking forward to playing them, and I’m sure they’re looking forward to playing me.”