CSU menâ€™s basketball has one last chance to punch its ticket to this yearâ€™s NCAA tournament.
That opportunity starts today with the 2011 Conoco Mountain West Conference Championships in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Rams (19-11, 9-7 MWC) felt all season that winning 11 conference games would be enough to receive an invite to the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years, but a shaky finish to the regular season has left CSU on the outside looking in.
A conference championship â€“â€“ and the automatic bid that comes with it â€“â€“ is likely the final hope for CSUâ€™s postseason dreams.
â€œWe canâ€™t control anything. We know if we win the tournament weâ€™re definitely in,â€ senior Travis Franklin said. â€œThatâ€™s our whole goal, to win the tournament, and thatâ€™s what we plan on doing.â€
Despite falling short of its goal of eleven conference wins, CSU coach Tim Miles believes his team has accomplished more than expected, and can still achieve more.
â€œItâ€™s time to concentrate on how we win the MWC. I want our guys single-minded,â€ Miles said. â€œI want their focus on just that.â€
CSU is pitted against the No. 5 seeded New Mexico Lobos (20-11, 8-8 MWC) in the first round. It will be the third time this season the two teams have met after splitting the season series.
The Rams battled through a road test at the conferenceâ€™s most feared venue, The Pit, but fell short 68-61 to the Lobos Jan. 12. CSU held serve in the second meeting, 68-62, despite nearly giving up an 18-point, second-half lead.
â€œItâ€™s hard to tell what happens the third time around,â€ Miles said. â€œI expect a really good game. Two teams playing for their playoff lives.â€
New Mexico features first team all-conference guard Dairese Gary and second team all- conference forward Drew Gordon. Gary and Gordon lead the Lobos in scoring at 14.2 and 12.6 points per game, respectively.
In order to seriously compete for the championship, the Rams need to play more consistently than they did to finish the regular season. CSU lost four of its final five games, including a costly loss on the road to the Air Force Academy, the No. 6 seed in the tournament.
Opportunities to pick up signature wins at Brigham Young and San Diego State University were squandered due to untimely lapses in the Ramsâ€™ play.
â€œWe need to just play defense, get stops. Our offense is going to come,â€ Franklin said. â€œPlay with confidence and play Rams basketball with a lot of swag. Just play our ball, and weâ€™ll be fine.â€
The Rams earned the fourth seed in the tournament, their highest seeding since the conference formed in 1999-2000.
For the seniors, the change in seeding is a welcome one.
â€œItâ€™s great to not have to worry about the play-in game. Weâ€™ve had to play in that a couple times, and thatâ€™s no fun,â€ forward Andy Ogide said. â€œItâ€™s a great feeling knowing where our seeding isâ€¦Iâ€™m just glad we put ourselves in this position.â€
Assistant Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at email@example.com.
- Opponent: New Mexico Lobos
- When: Today, 3:30 p.m.
- Where: Las Vegas, Nev.
- Lobos Record: (20-11)
- CSU Record: (19-11)