Good news for Rams fans: The beauty of college basketball in March has given the CSU men’s basketball team a fighting chance to still make the NCAA Tournament.
The bad news: The Rams will have to beat three quality Mountain West Conference teams in as many days to earn their place among the 65-team college basketball playoffs known as The Big Dance.
The challenge starts tonight when the sixth seeded Rams play the third seeded San Diego State Aztecs in Las Vegas at 8:30 p.m. in the first round of the MWC Men’s Basketball Tournament.
“Anything can happen in a tournament,” CSU junior forward Jason Smith said.
“There’s no dominant team in our conference. anyone can win it.”
Smith knows his tournament history. Six different teams in seven years have won the championship.
This year’s champion will be awarded one of the 31 automatic bids to the Dance; the other 34 teams will be announced Sunday at 3.p.m. on CBS.
This year the MWC Tournament returns to UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, site of the NBA All-Star Game in February, for the first time since 2003 – the last year CSU won the tournament, coincidentally as a sixth seed team.
That year, former Ram Matt Nelson scored 28 points in CSU’s 86-80 overtime win over BYU in the semifinals on his way to receiving tournament MVP honors.
Two-time All-MWC first-team member Smith said he does not feel the pressure to carry the Rams on his back, a la Nelson.
“I think the best chance for our team is to do it together,” Smith said.
The Kersey native was quick to assure the team’s main concern is beating an SDSU team it has lost to five consecutive times, reciting one of sports’ most commonly used clich/s: “We’re just going to go one game at a time.”
To earn the right to play the winner of the Utah-UNLV game on Friday, Rams Head Coach Dale Layer says his players must limit the number of turnovers.
CSU ranks last in the conference with 17.6 turnovers per game.
“It’s been our Achilles heel,” Layer said. “We’ve got to handle pressure better than we have been. We got good practice with facing tough pressure when we played UNLV on Saturday.”
After putting together a five-game conference winning streak earlier this season, SDSU cooled down and suffered disappointing losses at New Mexico and Wyoming down the stretch. The Aztecs appear to be currently out of reach of an at-large bid and need to run the table this week to make a return trip to the NCAAs.
Men’s basketball beat writer Sean Star can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key match-up: SDSU senior guard Brandon Heath vs. CSU junior guard Tim Denson.
Heath has been held to less than four points per game under his season average in his first two games against the Rams this year, in large part thanks to Denson.
By the numbers:
-2: MWC Tournament titles by SDSU, the only team with multiple championships (2002, 2006).
-95: Smith’s free throw shooting percentage in the last two minutes of games this year (19-20).
-127: Number of games CSU has recorded at least one block shot, dating back to Jan. 28, 2002.
Who: SDSU vs. CSU men’s basketball
What: First round of MWC Tournament
When: 9:30 p.m.
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Coverage: TV: The Mtn., Comcast channel 411