The conference season ended just as it began Saturday, with fans shuffling out of the stadium in disappointed silence as the pep band blared the fight song in the corner. The Rams had lost again, a 71-52 misstep against the New Mexico Lobos.
Mercifully, it was the last regular season game of a long season that saw the Rams go winless in the conference (0-16). They are just the second team in the history of the Mountain West to do so.
The last time a CSU men’s basketball team finished this poorly, the American public had just learned who Luke Skywalker’s father was and nobody outside of the Jersey shore had ever heard of Jon Bon Jovi.
The 1980-81 edition of the men’s team posted the worst record in the school’s history a deplorable 3-24, 1-17 in conference.
But that one, a 53-50 mid-season barnburner against Air Force, kept the Rams from polishing a winless conference laurel. Even in such a lowly season, it was never this bad.
With Saturday’s loss, the 2007-08 team put fresh ink in the darkest section of CSU’s all-time record book. It marked their 17th loss in a row, their 17th straight conference loss (dating back to last season), and their 24th loss overall this year in all school records.
Even so, coaches, players and administrators around the team carry themselves with the punch-drunk optimism of a Weeble and are quick to talk about the future of the program when asked. Citing youth and a good crop of transfers set to take the stage, everyone seems ready to move forward from this regular season.
“It’s been hard. I’ve never been through anything like this in my life, and neither have our players,” head coach Tim Miles said after the game.
“As I look in the mirror, I haven’t done a very good job this year in my book. I haven’t found a way for us to overcome our obstacles thatare out there, but I’m not going to stop trying to find a way to get better.”
For the fans the “wobble but don’t fall down” (at least emotionally) theory has seemed to take its toll. With 8:07 left in Saturday’s game and the Rams down by 22, a small group of fans started to trickle out of the arena. It wasn’t the mass exodus of a typical football game, but it certainly wasn’t something the athletic department wanted (or expected) at the start of the season.
“I wouldn’t come out unless we were winning,” coach Miles said. “Hey, we’re the Ron Paul of the Mountain West … the people who are there truly care and they believe in us. And that’s fine, but we’re going to bring those other fans along too and we’re going to have to earn that.”
Those who did stay seemed to be there only physically, as the arena fell into enough of a silence that one New Mexico backer’s hastily handmade sign deemed it the “Moby Morgue.”
“What would you expect it to be?” coach Miles said of the silence. “You could give away free T-shirts, hell, you could give away free beer and (the fans) still aren’t going to be that happy when we don’t perform well.”
Still, there were positives that came from Saturday’s game. Though he scored just six points and shot 1-7 from the field, junior point guard Marcus Walker secured the conference’s season scoring title. Walker averaged 17.2 points per game this year and scored a total of 516 points (28 more than Wyoming’s Brandon Ewing, who finished second).
CSU fans also got a chance to say goodbye to senior center Stuart Creason, who has been connected to the team (as a recruit, redshirt or player) for the past seven years.
Unfortunately, the send-off didn’t go quite the way anyone wanted it to. After a good first half with eight points and five rebounds, Creason reinjured his foot in the first 19 seconds of the second half. After being helped off the court, he was forced to sit with a thousand-yard stare and watch his teammates struggle in the closing minutes of the season.
The injury, which was described as being of the dreaded “he heard a pop” variety, puts Creason’s availability for the conference tournament (starting on Wednesday in Las Vegas) into serious question.
With or without Creason, the team will face Wyoming in the pigtail game of the MWC tournament, marking the third time they will have played their fierce rival this season.
CSU lost both previous games, 77-67 at home and 73-58 on the road. Even if the Rams lose Creason for the tournament and are forced to bow out early, freshman forward Andre McFarland said that the season has been a true learning experience for everyone involved.
“This shows that hard times we can get through, that when things don’t go right next year, it’s going to be OK,” McFarland said. “We’re going to find a way to get through it.”
Sports writer Nick Hubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.