Not many teams would celebrate drawing perennial basketball powerhouse Duke University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but CSU is an exception.
After their improbable run to the field of 64, the Rams celebrated their first invitation to the tournament since 1990 at the Fum McGraw Center on Sunday with friends, family and fans looking on to see whom CSU would play in the first round.
As the brackets began to fill and the tension began to mount, a hush came over the crowd. A melee then ensued as CSU, with its No. 14 seed, was placed alongside the third-seeded Duke in the West bracket.
Amid the jubilation were the Rams who, forming a circle, began to chant in unison: “We want Duke.”
“Obviously we’re going to play one of the premier programs in the country,” said senior Andy Birley. “As a kid you dream about playing against Duke in the NCAA Tournament. … With their legacy and tradition we know it will be an unbelievable challenge.”
Contributing to the team’s excitement was the game’s placement – a Thursday match-up in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah’s Huntsman’s Center – which head coach Dale Layer said he hopes will allow fans to make a long-anticipated trip.
“I’m hopeful we can get a couple of buses of students and fans to make the trip out (to Salt Lake City),” Layer said. “It’s a drivable distance for a lot of our fans and I can’t think of a better place for us to go.”
Matt Nelson, who suffered a laceration in his left eye during Saturday’s 63-62 victory over UNLV, agreed saying Salt Lake City was the best location for the team and its fans.
“Hopefully students will find a way to make the trek out there,” said Nelson, who assured reporters that he can see fine and that his eye, though sore, is much better.
With the nationally-ranked No. 12 Blue Devils waiting in the wings, Layer said he and his coaching staff have plenty to prepare for. Duke has not lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament since the 1995-96 season, when it was a No. 8 seed and lost to Eastern Michigan 75-60.
But, for now, he wants his players to enjoy a moment none of them had experienced previously in their collegiate careers.
“We will enjoy the rest of the day,” Layer said. “At least the players will enjoy the rest of the day, the coaches will enjoy the next 12 and a half minutes, then we’ll get to work.”
In the midst of the celebration was senior Brain Greene, the hero from Saturday’s 63-62 win over UNLV, who quietly took it all in with a big smile.
“My senior year in high school (CSU) went to the NIT and I thought it would be a consistent thing,” the former Horizon High School star said. “Three years pass by without anything and I got kind of anxious. … This is unbelievable.”
Apart from the challenge of facing Duke in the first round, the Rams also find themselves in the toughest bracket in the tournament. According to an ESPN.com fan poll, a resounding 83.1 percent of 47, 294 voters named the West as the most difficult bracket in the tournament. Arizona is the No. 1 seed, Kansas No. 2, Illinois No. 4 and Notre Dame No. 5.
Joining the Rams from the Mountain West Conference are ninth-seeded Utah (Midwest) and 12th-seeded Brigham Young (South), who face Oregon and Connecticut, respectively.
As for the game itself, several players said Duke will be an amazing challenge, but a victory is not impossible.
“It will be a challenge for us,” said forward Ronnie Clark. “We got a little edge in that we know the facility and have the altitude on our side. We’ll go out hard and try to do what we’ve been doing all along.”
Women’s team awaits postseason bid
Though the men’s team is dancing, the women’s team is not. The Mountain West Conference placed three teams – Utah, Brigham Young and New Mexico – in the tournament. The Rams now await a possible bid to the Women’s NIT.