LOUISVILLE, Ky. â€” A NCAA Tournament appearance seemed impossible for CSU five years ago.
It didnâ€™t even sound likely just two years ago. But thatâ€™s what makes great things great â€” theyâ€™re unexpected.
This year proved to be a giant leap in the right direction for CSU basketball, and I know I didnâ€™t see it coming. Ask any fan with reasonable expectations for the past season and I bet theyâ€™d say they didnâ€™t foresee it either.
Whether you think you saw signs or not, the Rams undoubtedly moved in the right direction.
Dominance at Moby
The friendly confines of â€œThe Whaleâ€ ended up being the biggest difference in 2011-12.
CSU was a mediocre 9-5 at Moby Arena last season and just 5-3 at home during Mountain West play. With essentially the same team returning, there was no evidence the Rams would morph into a deadly force at home.
For the first time in 50 years, CSU didnâ€™t surrender a single game at Moby in conference games. It was a perfect 7-0 and lost just one game the entire season to Southern Mississippi, and that was without Pierce Hornung, the heart and soul of the team, who was out with a concussion.
The Rams scored an average eight more points per game than their season average when playing at Moby, including wins over three ranked opponents â€” a first in school history.
With the wins came crowds, turning Moby from a mostly empty arena to one of the toughest venues in the MW. For CSU to continue to grow, Moby must remain a hostile environment.
Like all up-and-coming programs, CSU had to go out of its way to get attention. Whatâ€™s the best way to gain attention? Play major opponents.
The Rams played four opponents that were ranked in the top-25 at some point in the season. Three were top-20 teams (San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV) and one was a top-10 team (Duke) and all four were in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. CSU beat three of the four, but more importantly, showed a willingness to challenge established teams.
CSU played three more 2012 NCAA Tournament teams in non-conference games (Montana, Southern Miss and Colorado), beating two of the three. Coach Tim Milesâ€™ approach to scheduling earned CSU a top-25 RPI and high strength of schedule.
It didnâ€™t matter so much if CSU won or lost; the Rams put themselves on the map.
Not too long ago, CSU failed to win a single game in conference play. It had been four years since the Rams won a game in the MW Tournament.
But optimism surrounded CSU before the season, picked to finish fourth in the MW standings in the pre-season. The road proved to be more difficult than most thought with the surprising competitiveness of teams like TCU and Boise State.
The Rams beat every team in the conference once and defeated in-state rival Air Force twice.
Wins over the upper-tier MW schools like San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV showed improvement for the previous year when CSU struggled against the conferenceâ€™s best. In fact, the Rams were in position to take the top spot in the MW of several occasions.
The Rams met pre-season expectations and finished fourth, en route to a victory in the MW Tournament and an appearance in the semi-finals.
Going into next year, CSU showed itâ€™s capable of winning the conference.
Emergence of a leader
With the departure of Andy Ogide, the Rams needed someone to take the reigns as the go-to guy.
Junior Wes Eikmeier assumed that position, emerging as one of the most capable scorers in the conference. Eikmeier averaged 15.5 points per game, ranking him as the fourth leading scorer in the MW.
Eikmeier played the sixth most minutes of anyone in the conference, and boasted the highest free throw percentage at 87.8 percent. Eikmeier was also the only CSU player selected to the All-Conference team.
Eikmeierâ€™s ability to shoot from anywhere on the court along with his leadership, combined with the boost in talent next season, will help CSU compete for the MW crown.
The Rams made the seemingly impossible a reality in 2011-12, and I bet theyâ€™ll do it again next year.
Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.