Category archive: Colorado State Rams
He got lucky last season. And he's not trying to camouflage how he scheduled Colorado State's nonconference games last season as the Rams' coach.
"We were fortunate," said Miles, who is now at Nebraska. "What we did was look at our league and try to figure out how many top-100 games we would get in our league. We thought we'd have them in New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State [twice each]. We were worried about losing BYU [to the WCC], so we thought we needed one more."
The Rams scheduled a one-way guaranteed game at Duke. CSU lost by 23.
"We did it for the exposure, to play a Top 25 team and a good RPI game," said Miles.
The Rams received an NCAA bid last season because CSU won key Mountain West Conference games at home against UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State, not because of its nonconference schedule.
As we've examined nonconference schedules in a number of high-profile leagues this week on ESPN.com, it's clear that there are exceptions to the rule. CSU was one last season.
The Rams lost to Southern Mississippi and at Stanford; the former was an NCAA team and the latter was the eventual NIT champion but not a candidate for a bubble spot in early March.
Miles said he jokingly called his athletic director State Farm because he liked being such a good neighbor by playing Denver, Colorado and Northern Colorado. The Rams won all three games last season, two of which were in Fort Collins -- including the win against the eventual Pac-12 tournament champ Buffaloes.
But don't think for a second that Miles has somehow figured out the system. He hasn't. He admits he just didn't want to play teams that would hurt him. And he didn't, as the four nonconference regular-season losses (Duke, Southern Miss, Stanford and Northern Iowa) were all "good." The problem is that, outside of beating Colorado, which at the time didn't appear to be a high-profile win, there wasn't a victory to scream about when MWC play began.
Miles left his successor, Larry Eustachy, a potential MWC top-three team and a squad that could return to the NCAAs, especially with the addition of Minnesota transfer center Colton Iverson. He said he left the Rams with games against Denver, CU and Northern Colorado, a series with UTEP and the Las Vegas tournament that doesn't have an NCAA-bound team (Portland, Virginia Tech and Bradley).
Eustachy added games at Washington, at UIC and a home game against St. Bonaventure. Eustachy also added two non-Division I games against Chadron State and Adams State.
If the Rams do get into the NCAA tournament, it will be on the strength of the MWC top-100 teams. And this season, there could be four bids, in addition to CSU, with UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico and Nevada all viable candidates.
The scheduling dilemma for teams on the bubble is legitimate.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy defended his perceived mediocre schedule on a number of fronts.
He said the Rebels had to wait to see how the SEC would divvy up the new 18-game format with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M. The Rebels got Missouri and Tennessee twice and Kentucky (home) and Florida (road) only once. Those schools should be the top four teams in the SEC this season.
Kennedy said he didn't know who the Rebels would get in the Big East/SEC Challenge. Ole Miss will play a home game against Rutgers. But there was likely no chance it was going to get a marquee Big East team in this made-for-TV event.
Ole Miss is in the Diamond Head Classic, but the Rebels better play San Diego State in the semifinals and would benefit from playing Arizona or at least Miami to get two quality games out of the event. Ole Miss can't afford to leave Honolulu without playing (and beating) one of those teams.
Kennedy said few BCS-level teams would play at Loyola Marymount on the way to Hawaii or at Middle Tennessee State. He's right. Those are games where the team will be rewarded if they win and hurt if they lose. The rest of the schedule won't move the meter for the Rebels.
The Ole Miss coach wanted to upgrade the slate, but Kennedy had no control over the Big East/SEC Challenge or the opponents in Diamond Head. He could have added one or two quality nonconference games, but who would sign up for a home-and-home series with Ole Miss?
The Rebels nearest high-profile Division I school -- Memphis -- wants no part of them. Kennedy has used his relationship with Bob Huggins to get West Virginia to Oxford, but that series has ended.
So Ole Miss, much like CSU last season and again this season, will have to earn a bid by playing well in conference, despite the selection committee's plea to schedule up in the nonconference.
Sure, the Rams have an RPI of 27, an SOS of No. 4 and home wins over San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico. But they also have only two road wins -- at UTEP and at Northern Colorado, both of which are below 100 in the RPI. Is that enough to put an 18-10 team into the NCAA tournament?
"We're not done yet," said Colorado State coach Tim Miles, whose team is fresh off the third court-storming of the season after it beat UNLV on Wednesday night.
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireTim Miles says Colorado State has some work to do to secure an NCAA bid.
"We're not going to win the eye test, the smell test, the airport team," Miles said. "But we can win on the floor."
The Rams travel to rival Air Force on Saturday to try to finish the conference season with eight wins.
"We've got to beat Air Force; winning on the road is our weakness," Miles said.
The excuses for Colorado State's early-season swoon can be pinned on the absence of forward Pierce Hornung. Hornung got knocked out against Stanford on Nov. 15, sustaining a concussion. He played 28 minutes against the Cardinal but the Rams floundered and lost by 12, 64-52. They went 3-3 without Hornung, including losing by 21 to Southern Miss, by six at Northern Iowa and then a humbling beat down at Duke by 23.
Would they have won any of those games with Hornung healthy? Possibly, since Miles said he's the Rams' best defensive player. The NCAA tournament selection committee is supposed to take injury absences (more so than suspensions) into account. Still, the Rams had opportunities when Hornung was healthy and whiffed on the road in the MWC. They lost by 19 at rival Wyoming and fell in one- and two-possession games at TCU and Boise State. "We gave away the TCU and Boise games," Miles said. "We don't have the depth at guard so it's hard for us to get easy baskets, and that's why we struggle.
Miles tried to schedule up, and playing Southern Miss, Northern Iowa and Duke isn't bad at all in the nonconference season. The annual game with Colorado is now a legit affair with the Buffaloes being winners under Tad Boyle.
The Rams also have a decided home-court advantage. Moby Arena had its moments under Stew Morrill in the '90s. But Miles said it had been the Moby morgue at times in recent seasons.
However, this season the joint has been jumping. To add to the excitement, there's a live ram courtside at the start of games (although the mascot got a little too excited and made a small mess at center court prior to tipoff Wednesday night). "He's nervous," Miles said of the live mascot.
Regardless, the home atmosphere now gives CSU an advantage.
Miles said the argument that the Rams can't win on the road is irrelevant to some degree because NCAA tournament games are played at neutral sites. Miles' pithy comments usually come in the form of tweets. He even tweets at halftime of games, although technically his sports information director is standing in the locker room sanitizing his speech to the team and posting it directly on Miles' Twitter account.
"It's no different than a halftime interview," Miles said.
If the Rams make the NCAA tournament, it would mean half the Mountain West was in the tournament (joining likely locks New Mexico, UNLV and SDSU), quite a feat for a league that is losing multiple members in a year and merging with Conference USA. "Last year we couldn't beat the top teams in the league, and we were the No. 3 seed in the NIT," Miles said. "This year we've done that. But we're not done yet."
"Our basketball will remain very strong," said Colorado State coach Tim Miles. "The MWC and C-USA couldn't stand still any longer."
The potential exists for a conference with multiple bids to the NCAA tournament.
Of course, that's the first question that doesn't have an exact answer yet when posed to the NCAA on Tuesday. Does the C-USA/MWC league retain an automatic berth? Commissioners Craig Thompson, a former NCAA tournament selection committee chair, and Britton Banowsky are seasoned NCAA committee members at various levels. They had to know this answer before making such a bold move. But the NCAA didn't have a set answer on the topic Tuesday.
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireNew Mexico coach Steve Alford's concerns about the MWC/C-USA league are shared by many.
The only natural rivalry that is now rekindled with the move is the return of New Mexico and UTEP to the same conference. These are two long-time old WAC partners that played countless quality games for decades.
Other than that, the similarities between the two leagues is minimal at best. "I'm not sure yet about how this will work," said New Mexico coach Steve Alford. "We had to do something with us losing so many teams. But I really haven't seen how the league schedule will be done or where the tournament will be. There are still a lot of questions."
Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik said it best when he added that there is stability in the move but the travel was worse than the current situation.
The apparent goal of this conference is to have two essential regional conferences with one umbrella title league and a playoff to determine a champion.
The 2013 membership isn't expected to stay as is since there is hope of expanding.
As it stands now, the 16 teams in football would be: 1. Fresno State; 2. Nevada; 3. UNLV; 4. New Mexico; 5. Hawaii; 6. Air Force; 7. Colorado State; 8. Wyoming; 9. Tulsa; 10. UAB; 11. Rice; 12. Southern Miss; 13. Marshall; 14. East Carolina; 15. Tulane; 16. UTEP.
Hawaii will join the Big West in 2012-13 in all other sports, leaving the league with 15 basketball-playing schools in the fall of 2013.
One complaint already levied Tuesday by one school was that there are only two members in the Eastern time zone: Marshall and East Carolina.
The news release from C-USA and the MWC discussed raising the membership to 18 to 24 schools. And already programs are jockeying for position to join this league.
There are a number of options, none of which may move the meter in ratings or command a higher dollar fee in television rights. But there is potential to improve the basketball power rating if this occurs.
According to multiple sources, the candidates include Charlotte (A-10), which is about to start playing football; Florida International (Sun Belt); North Texas (Sun Belt); UT-San Antonio (WAC); Louisiana Tech (WAC); Middle Tennessee State (Sun Belt); Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), if the Hilltoppers want to bump up the football program; Old Dominion (CAA), if the Monarchs bump up football as well; and UMass and Temple (both would be coming from MAC in football, A-10 in other sports).
The West doesn't need to be shored up, but there are obvious candidates -- New Mexico State, Utah State and San Jose State are all possibilities -- if this league wanted to raid the WAC.
There are plenty of rich basketball-playing schools this group could pluck to add to the competitive nature of the league. Temple is atop the list, and if the Big East doesn't grab the Owls, they are ready to be taken (if they deem this a better fit than their current state).
Of course, if these raids happen, it would potentially weaken other solid basketball leagues like the A-10 and to some extent the Sun Belt and possibly CAA.
But Alford's concerns are shared by many. The MWC has done a tremendous job of creating a high-level conference with limited numbers. The rivalries among San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico -- and previously with BYU and Utah before the departures of those two schools -- were some of the best in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. The MWC had captured the vacuum in the West amid the Pac-12's demise. The WCC has had its moments at the top of its league, but it didn't have the depth the MWC had recently.
The MWC's dominance has been fractured with the departures of BYU (to the WCC in all sports but football, in which the Cougars are now an independent), once-proud Utah and the pending exit of the Aztecs from the conference in 2013.
Had Memphis stayed in C-USA instead of bolting for the Big East, this league would have had a bookend of elite programs in UNLV and Memphis -- two of the powers from outside the "power six" leagues in the past 20 years. Instead, UNLV will have to carry a heavy burden as the flagship of this merger.
The onus will be on New Mexico, UTEP, UAB, Southern Miss, Tulsa, Marshall and any newcomer to continue to raise their game and be top 30-40 programs on a consistent basis. Short of that, and this league won't have the necessary relevance to command the media rights dollars and/or the multiple bids that are necessary for the survival of a mega-conference.
The atmosphere of the Carrier Classic, with its overwhelming sense of patriotism and the sheer uniqueness of playing a game on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, along with the historical significance of that vessel, will be hard to top.
The view was magnificent. The Naval presence in all its glory and uniformity was as impressive as one would imagine. And the appreciation from the sailors for the break from the daily routine was genuine.
If you missed that game or any of the matchups on opening weekend, you're in for a treat because you won't be able to turn on the ESPN family of networks from 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday until about 1 a.m. ET on Wednesday without seeing college basketball on the screen.
Here are some questions to ponder as the fourth annual Tip-Off Marathon begins with Washington State at Gonzaga and ends with an NIT Season Tip-Off game the following night from Stanford.
1. Will Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski become the NCAA's all-time winningest coach? The Blue Devils play Michigan State in the first game at the Champions Classic (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) from Madison Square Garden. Duke struggled against Belmont in its opener and then blasted Presbyterian on Saturday. Neither result should come as a surprise. The Blue Devils are usually the home team in New York, but it will be interesting to see how many Spartans fans are able to make the trip, especially if some of them just went to San Diego. Still, Michigan State has a real shot to upstage Coach K. Despite their loss to North Carolina, the Spartans were the aggressor, outrebounding the Tar Heels convincingly 42-31. The Blue Devils have as much size as North Carolina, so the challenge will be similar. But MSU must shoot better from 3-point range than it did against UNC (2-of-20). Another key to the game is seeing which team converts timely perimeter shots. If Duke wins, we'll have the unique setting of Krzyzewski winning No. 903 and passing his former coach Bob Knight, who will sit courtside calling the game for ESPN.
2. How will the Thomas Robinson-Anthony Davis matchup unfold? This could turn out to be one of the more anticipated frontcourt showdowns during the nonconference schedule, as this individual battle highlights the second game of the Champions Classic between Kentucky and Kansas (ESPN, 9:30 ET). Robinson began the season as the go-to guy for Kansas, finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds against Towson. Meanwhile, Davis, UK's highly touted freshman, blitzed Marist with 23 points and 10 boards in the Wildcats' 50-point rout. Kentucky has more options than KU and can lean on Doron Lamb or Terrence Jones to get it plenty of points. But the tussle between Robinson and Davis will be good theater throughout the night.
3. How will Ohio State's Aaron Craft and William Buford handle Florida's perimeter? We're not conceding the Jared Sullinger-Patric Young matchup (well, we will for these purposes), but this game may come down to the guards. Florida's set of Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Brad Beal and Erving Walker is off to a sensational start. Rosario scored 19 points off the bench, while Boynton scored 19 and Beal 14 (Walker added 10) in a rout of Jackson State. Craft and Buford will be tested defensively more so than they were a year ago, when Ohio State won easily at UF during this same event. The Buckeyes, who host the Gators at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2), are the No. 3 team in the nation because of Sullinger. But this will be the first time OSU may feel the loss of defensive specialist David Lighty.
4. Can Belmont emerge from the brutal opening weekend with a split? The Bruins nearly nipped Duke in a comeback that fell one possession short. The next challenge is a visit to in-state Memphis at noon ET on ESPN. Belmont won't have any awe factor in playing the Tigers. The Bruins should come into this game oozing with confidence after their showing versus the Blue Devils. Memphis is still a young team and a work in progress. The Tigers have more talent, but the question is whether they will show patience against a Belmont team that will want to run and run and run. This could be one of the most entertaining games of the day.
5. How will Baylor handle its one and likely only test during Perry Jones III's suspension? Jones must sit for three more games after accepting an extra benefit. The Bears beat Texas Southern on Friday and Jackson State on Sunday. The two games that follow Baylor's home matchup with San Diego State (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) are South Carolina State and Texas-Arlington. This is not the same Aztecs team from last season after the roster was gutted by graduating seniors and an early-entry NBA departure. Still, they are athletic enough to cause problems. The Bears have options with Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Anthony Jones, but this game should at least push Baylor a tad more than the first two did during Jones' suspension.
James Snook/US PresswireGonzaga's Marquise Carter hopes to find his shooting stroke against Washington State.
6. How will Gonzaga's guards respond after a poor first outing? The Bulldogs showed in a tight win over Eastern Washington that they can rely heavily on Robert Sacre (22 points and 10 boards). But the perimeter shooters went 3-of-13 on 3s, and Marquise Carter was 2-of-11 and Mike Hart, Gary Bell, Kevin Pangos and David Stockton were a combined 6-of-15 from the field. Washington State is a team in transition, and the Zags should win this game. But Gonzaga has plenty of tougher challenges ahead, and so its guard play will need to improve. Still, this will be a good chance to see Sacre and Elias Harris on display against the Cougars, tipping off the Marathon at 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday night (ESPN).
7. As for the two women's games on the Marathon schedule How will Tennessee perform after coach Pat Summitt's health diagnosis? If you saw Robin Roberts' piece on "Good Morning America," you know it is clear that the Lady Vols are determined to win a national title for Summitt. The Tennessee coach also seems as driven as ever in her quest to keep coaching while she battles early-onset dementia. This should be an emotional game, as they all may turn out to be, for the No. 3 Lady Vols as they host No. 7 Miami (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET). And how will Texas A&M handle its status as the reigning champs? The Aggies aren't expected to repeat as national champs, but they have established themselves as an elite program. The primer to the Tennessee game won't involve as much theater, but may be as competitive a game when No. 9 Louisville goes to College Station to play the No. 6 Aggies (ESPNU, 4 p.m. ET).
8. What should we expect from Texas' Myck Kabongo? Kabongo is an impressive young man who handles himself with poise and class. Now he has to translate that onto the court against a talented Rhode Island squad that lost at George Mason by two points in its season opener Friday. The Longhorns will lean heavily on Kabongo to start the season. How he handles this first assignment will be a strong indicator on what to expect, as URI will push Texas from the outset (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET).
9. How will Drexel handle the hype as the CAA's favorite? The Dragons play at Rider (ESPN, 6 a.m. ET) when most people might be waking up to watch the Marathon. Drexel is the early pick to win the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference that's receiving some buzz after placing its second team (VCU) in the Final Four since 2006. Drexel will be minus the injured Chris Fouch, but Samme Givens and Frantz Massenat should be enough to beat Rider. But the Dragons could do themselves a service by looking impressive, too.
10. How productive can the Saint Mary's frontcourt be this season? Randy Bennett anticipates that this frontcourt will be more productive than the one led by Omar Samhan, who led the Gaels to the Sweet 16 two seasons ago. That means Rob Jones will be getting help from Kyle Rowley, Brad Waldow, Mitchell Young and Beau Levesque. Jones dominated Fresno Pacific with 25 points and 12 boards, but Northern Iowa -- coming off an impressive road route of ODU -- will be a much more formidable foe for the Gaels (ESPN, 2 a.m. ET).
11. What should we expect from LeBryan Nash? Well, if you believe the hype, Oklahoma State has an all-Big 12 player who can elevate it to the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys will likely have plenty of chances to feature Nash against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the NIT Season Tip-Off (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET).
Richard Mackson/US PresswireIf Syracuse beats Manhattan on Monday, Kris Joseph and the Orange will face either Albany or Brown in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
12. How polished will Syracuse look? If they defeat Manhattan on Monday, the Orange will face either Albany or Brown on Tuesday (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The early indication is that this veteran team will be ready to compete for the Final Four. Of course, Syracuse isn't being challenged as much as some other teams, but the Orange smacked Fordham in the opener as Dion Waiters complemented Kris Joseph quite well.
13. A surprisingly close game? I'm going with Austin Peay at Cal (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET). The Governors should be one of the favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference. Will Triggs and TyShwan Edmondson could play at any level. California is one of the Pac-12 favorites, but the Golden Bears will be tested in this CBE Classic matchup. Guards Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez will be tested versus Austin Peay.
14. What are the chances of a surprise to end the Marathon? I think Stanford will have a tough time with either SMU or Colorado State at home in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Mustangs or the Rams are fully capable of being a pest and upsetting the Cardinal (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET). Stanford first has to get past Fresno State, of course, to be in this matchup. To do that, Aaron Bright, Chasson Randle and Josh Owens will have to really take control.
15. How will Miami score inside? The Hurricanes are sans Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble due to injuries. The given has been that the Canes have the guard play with Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. But Rutgers will try and make Miami (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) beat the Scarlet Knights on the inside. This could turn out to be one of the closer games in the Marathon.
16. What should we expect from Villanova? This is somewhat of a blank slate. The Coreys -- Mr. Fisher and Mr. Stokes -- are gone. Maalik Wayns will be the dominant presence, but there are plenty of other options as Mouphtaou Yarou, JayVaughn Pinkston, Dominic Cheek and James Bell could all star against La Salle (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET). The Wildcats are an unknown in the Big East, and this game will at least give us a taste of what we may see.
17. Is Kevin Jones ready to be a star? For two seasons, West Virginia's Bob Huggins has been waiting for Jones to emerge. He scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a season-opening seven-point win over Oral Roberts. Kent State will hardly be a walk for the Mountaineers (ESPN, 10 a.m. ET). Darryl Bryant can offset Jones' production, but the offense will likely flow through Jones as he adapts to being the front man for the Mountaineers.
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireGib Arnold's Warriors look to make a good first impression against Cal State-Northridge.
18. How ready is Hawaii to make a run at Utah State? Gib Arnold has gone through a complete roster makeover and coached the Warriors to an impressive 19-13 record in his first season in Honolulu. Utah State beat BYU to open the season while one of the WAC favorites, Nevada, was flat at home in losing to Missouri State. Hawaii has a real shot to make a move in its final season in the WAC before heading to the Big West. Establishing an identity in a new conference is always key and ensuring that Cal State-Northridge (ESPN, 4 a.m. ET) is well aware of what it is in for when it visits the Stan Sheriff Center would do wonders for a first impression.
19. What will Morehead State and College of Charleston look like after losing their stars? This game could be one of the more competitive because of who both teams lost, rather than who they gained. Morehead State no longer has Kenneth Faried, while Charleston is without Andrew Goudelock. The Eagles made the NCAA tournament last season, defeating Louisville and then falling to Richmond. The Cougars reached the NIT quarterfinals before losing to eventual champ Wichita State. Regardless of how these teams look (ESPN, 8 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, you can expect them both to be factors in their respective conferences by February.
20. What are the chances Virginia Tech doesn't end up in New York for the NIT semifinals? We'll find out Tuesday night. The Hokies will likely play George Mason, assuming the Patriots beat Florida International and Virginia Tech knocks off Monmouth on Monday. Mason beat Rhode Island by two in overtime in its opener, and while it is a more depleted roster than expected when Paul Hewitt took the job, this is still a formidable squad. Virginia Tech used balanced scoring to beat East Tennessee State by 11 in its opener, but hitting 5-of-18 on 3s was an indicator that the perimeter shooting may not be the Hokies' strong suit.
Other notable names to watch: Does Tu Holloway have a monster game for Xavier against IPFW (7 p.m. ET)? Will Cincinnati's Yancy Gates dominate against Jacksonville State (7 p.m. ET)? How will Harvard fare as the hunted team on the road, even against a rebuilding Holy Cross squad (7 p.m. ET)? How will Dayton's Archie Miller fare in his road debut as head coach at Miami-Ohio (7 p.m. ET)? Will Mike Scott be a double-double performer for Virginia against Winthrop (7 p.m. ET)? Will LSU avoid plunging into irrelevance by winning at Coastal Carolina (7 p.m. ET)? Will Butler avoid a shaky 0-2 start by winning at home against Chattanooga (7 p.m. ET)? Will Saint Louis prove to be the team projected as an A-10 contender and win games it should -- even on the road at Southern Illinois (8 p.m. ET)? Will Missouri State continue to win on the road and take down Arkansas State (8 p.m. ET)? How impressive will Royce White be for Iowa State against Drake (9 p.m. ET)? How will Wyoming play for new coach Larry Shyatt against Northern Colorado (9 p.m.)? Will Arizona State start its climb toward respectability by winning a game at home versus Pepperdine (8:30 p.m. ET)? Will Utah State follow up its BYU win by beating rival Weber State (9 p.m.) on the road?
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Rams have a legitimate shot to make the Mountain West Conference a five-bid league this season. If that occurs, CSU might have a chance to replace BYU as one of the new era's top-four teams in a league that became a two-class society last season: BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV in the upper class. Utah, Colorado State, TCU, Wyoming and Air Force in the second class.
Utah was once a regular, and at times dominating, member of the first group, but the Utes are reshuffling their roster and are off to the soon-to-be Pac-12 next season, anyway. Rival BYU will jettison itself off to the West Coast Conference.
So with the addition of Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada into the Mountain West over the next two seasons (TBD if Fresno and Nevada are coming in 2011 or 2012), the window is wide-open for a fourth to join New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State as regulars atop the league, since those three don't look to be fading anytime soon.
"If we were stock, I'd buy it," said CSU's fourth-year coach Tim Miles. "You'd get really good value. You'd get your money's worth."
This isn't to completely dismiss TCU, Wyoming or Air Force from taking the fourth spot, but Colorado State is clearly a step ahead at this juncture. The Rams did finish in a tie for fifth (with Utah) last season, and this team probably has the highest expectations in Fort Collins since Stew Morrill had Milt Palacio and Jameel Mahmud in 1997 (won 20 games but ended in the NIT) or Boyd Grant's NCAA tourney team led by Mike Mitchell in 1990.
New Mexico coach Steve Alford tossed out the idea last week that the Rams could be a sleeper team, and he's not alone. There is a consensus building. Colorado State has a senior-laden team led by Andy Ogide, Travis Franklin, Adam Nigon and Andre McFarland, who took the leap with Miles because the former North Dakota State coach claimed during their recruitment that they could be the anchors in turning the program around.
"I think only [Tom] Crean had it worse [at Indiana]," Miles said. "There were 13 scholarship players when I took the job [over from the fired Dale Layer], and when we started the season there were two."
AP Photo/Laura RauchFor Colorado State to take the next step, Dorian Green and the sophomore class will be a key.
The Rams went 0-16 in the Mountain West in Miles' first season, won four in '09 and seven last season.
The return of the sophomore class with Pierce Hornung, Dorian Green, Greg Smith, Iowa State transfer Wes Eikmeier and redshirt guard Jesse Carr, back after a bizarre groin strain turned into a fractured pelvis, means the Rams have a nice balance of classes.
But a lot of this is just talk if the Rams don't change their inability to beat teams above them in the standings. A season ago, CSU was 0-8 against the top four teams in the MWC, 7-1 against the lower four. Losing to UCLA and Oregon in nonconference games didn't help the image either, considering each of those Pac-10 programs had their worst seasons in years.
"We can talk about it until we're blue in the face, but we have to beat those guys [in the top part of the league]," Miles said. "I was hired to raise the bar. We're not where I want to be."
Miles fully understands the opportunity at hand. The MWC is losing two of its most tradition-rich programs and loyal followings in BYU and Utah.
"Now the job for the rest of us is to elevate our program," he said.
Miles, whose witty musings on Twitter put him in a class with Xavier's Chris Mack and Arizona State's Herb Sendek, has the personality to withstand the pressure to produce.
"He's so persistent and resilient," said Miles' former assistant Saul Phillips, who replaced him at North Dakota State and led the Bison to the 2009 NCAA tournament. Phillips and Miles masterfully redshirted a class of recruits so they could all be seniors once NDSU lost its provisional status and became eligible for the tourney.
"He knows how to blueprint a program," Phillips said. "His personality will be the catalyst. He's got a magnetic personality. And that's probably the biggest selling point to recruits."
Colorado State will need Miles' charm to stay afloat. It's no secret that Moby Arena pales in comparison to the refurbished Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., the history-filled Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas and even Viejas Arena in San Diego.
My memory of Moby Arena from covering the WAC in the 1990s was the live ram placed behind the visiting bench, leaving quite a stench. And then there's that oversized logo at center court that is way too distracting for television. Look at this way: If the best you can say is that the 1976 Robby Benson movie "One on One" was filmed there -- that's the interesting factoid in the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia -- you know the arena doesn't have much of a winning history.
Miles is keenly aware of the Rams' lack of national identity, so he's tried to expand the brand by looking for games on other networks outside of the Mtn., Versus or CBS College Sports. The Dec. 11 Kansas game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., will be brutally tough, but it'll also be on ESPN2. Miles also wanted to be in the Cancun Governor's Cup because the event is on the ESPN family of networks.
"We have a great network and for those that want to see the MWC, they can seek it out and we get great television coverage," Miles said. "But at the same time, we need to cross-brand and we need to be on ESPN and Fox. That's why we specifically looked for those opportunities."
But Colorado State can't buy more than one game without a return unless they get bought for a high price. Miles said he bought Arkansas-Pine Bluff (without a return) and used the guarantee money the Rams are getting for playing Kansas and bought Sam Houston State.
Cutting these deals isn't something New Mexico or UNLV has to do because they can secure decent home-and-home series. (San Diego State, because it is in a cash-strapped state, is another matter, as the Aztecs open up with five straight games away from home.)
So if CSU is to be taken seriously this season, it must show well in nonconference games and has to split some of the games against the power four in the Mountain West.
Miles said the Rams are a smart team at both ends of the court. He said they have tremendous enthusiasm and attitude, they'll be competitive and have a chance to win each time they take the court. That all sounds swell.
But it won't mean a whole lot if the Rams don't win enough to be in the mix come March.
"I'm excited about the challenge and confident in our guys," Miles said. "But at the end of the day, we're either a contender or a pretender. That's where we're at. It's time to put up."