All signs point toward a breakthrough.
With the programâ€™s highest expectations in over a decade, the CSU Rams basketball season tips off tonight with an exhibition game against Regis University.
Considerable strides have been made in each season since head coach Tim Miles took over the CSU program three years ago. In 2007-08, the Rams went 0-16 in Mountain West Conference play during Milesâ€™ inaugural season. A year later, the Ramsâ€™ record improved to 9-22, including four conference victories.
CSU fans really began seeing substantial progress last season, as the Rams ascended to fifth in the MWC and earned their first trip to the postseason in seven years by qualifying for the College Basketball Invitational. Last seasonâ€™s record of 16-16 marked the programâ€™s best finish in 10 years.
â€œIt took a couple of years to get traction; it was very difficult to go through those first two seasons,â€ Miles said. â€œI really feel like last year we started to resemble the kind of team we want to be. But we donâ€™t want to be in the CBI, we want to be in the NCAA Tournament.â€
The Rams return their top five leading scorers from a season ago, with seniors Andy Ogide, Travis Franklin and Adam Nigon as well as sophomores Dorian Green and Greg Smith all set to return. The team will also welcome back sophomore point guard Jesse Carr, who missed most of 2009-10 with a fractured pelvis.
â€œJesseâ€™s a crafty player, heâ€™s got poise and savvy. I love his demeanor,â€ Miles said. â€œAs he gets used to the speed of the game again, heâ€™s only going to get better and better.â€
Miles expressed his excitement for the Ramsâ€™ strong depth at guard this season, as Iowa State transfer Wes Eikmeier and freshmen Dwight Smith and Moe Wiltz look to bolster an already talented group.
â€œAdding Dwight Smith, Wes Eikmeier and Maurice Wiltz to go along with Carr, Green and Nigon â€“â€“ thatâ€™s a nice stable of guards.â€ Miles said. â€œThereâ€™s going to be a lot of competition, which will be good for our depth, our versatility and the balance of our team.â€
The forwards of the Rams may be a bit less revered, but the group has experience at the top with Andre McFarland, Franklin and all-conference performer Ogide.
Franklin, who led the country in free-throw attempts per minute last season, said he has been working on improving from the charity stripe this offseason.
â€œI got a lot of free throws up,â€ said Franklin, who shot just 51.8 percent from the free-throw line a year ago. â€œI was thinking way too much about it last year. I started shooting differently instead of just focusing on my routine. So now I think I fixed the problem.â€
Though the Rams finished 7-9 a season ago in MWC play, they failed to win a single game against the top four teams in the conference â€“â€“ UNLV, BYU, San Diego State and New Mexico. Ogide emphasized the importance of breaking into the conferenceâ€™s top four, as the MWC sent four teams into the NCAA Tournament in 2010.
â€œThe top four is where we want to be,â€ Ogide said. â€œThatâ€™s our ultimate goal is to be there so we can get into the NCAA tournament.â€
The Rams have an interesting schedule slated for 2010-11, with a mid-December trip to Kansas City to play the No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks. The Rams didnâ€™t fare well in their two marquee match-ups of 2009-10, with losses to Pacific 10 schools Oregon and UCLA.
Two weeks later, the Rams will travel to Cancun, Mexico to participate in the Cancun Governorâ€™s Cup during the three days leading up to Christmas. Both the KU game and Cancun tournament will be aired on the family of ESPN networks, giving Miles and the Rams more opportunities to show off their fast-improving program.
Miles knows that a trip to the Big Dance in 2011 will be a tall task but remains adamant that these Rams have what it takes.
â€œItâ€™ll take an exceptional season to make the NCAA, but thatâ€™s the way it is,â€ Miles said. â€œI like where our group is and I like our progress. In the end, we are going to depend on our senior class.â€
Assistant Sports Editor Joel Hafnor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.