KANSAS CITY, Mo. â€“ Get after their asses.
Or GATA, as itâ€™s commonly referred to, is the motto Colorado State head basketball coach Tim Miles instills upon his players every day of the year. Itâ€™s a saying thatâ€™s meant to remind the Rams to play hard for all 40 minutes of every game.
When CSU faced the No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks at Kansas Cityâ€™s Sprint Center on Saturday, thatâ€™s exactly what the Rams did for nearly 27 minutes, until KU guard Elijah Johnson hit a three-point dagger with 13:09 remaining that killed any hopes of a nationally televised upset. It pushed the Ramsâ€™ deficit to 13 points and would keep growing from there.
On the scoreboard, the final showed a 76-55 victory for KU.
But in the hearts of the Rams, they knew just how close they were from making headlines with an upset â€“â€“ and how far CSU has come since Miles took over the program four years ago.
After former head coach Dale Layer put the program in a 7-year state of static mediocrity, CSU Director of Athletics Paul Kowalczyk made the decision following the 2006-07 season that it was time to put a new face in charge of Rams basketball.
â€œWe knew we needed a rebuilding job here and Timâ€™s track record had shown he could do that successfully at several stops along the way,â€ Kowalczyk said. â€œI watched his team (North Dakota State) compete against us the previous year, and I thought he did a great job, and all the indicators said this guy could coach and build programs.â€
On March 22, 2007, only 10 days after Layer was fired, Miles took over a program that would see 10 players transfer over the summer and return only one starter â€“â€“ 7-footer Stuart Creason.
Desperate to find players to fill its roster, CSU made it well known that it would be holding walk-on tryouts for its upcoming season, trying to find any intramural or former high school star to make a difference.
Suffice to say, the Rams struggled during Milesâ€™ first season in 2007-08, winning only seven games â€“â€“ none of which came in Mountain West Conference play.
Despite the teamâ€™s struggles, Miles and his staff had made recruiting a top priority and did so with success. Within Milesâ€™ first full season, the Rams signed under-the-radar junior college prospects Travis Franklin and Harvey Perry, Ole Miss-transfer Andy Ogide and dipping deep into the high school ranks by landing point guard Jesse Carr â€“â€“ who is the all-time leading three-point shooter for the state of Nebraska.
And though CSU only won two additional games in 2008-09, with four coming in MWC action, including an upset over UNLV, it was clear the rebuilding Kowalczyk wanted was well underway.
â€œI accepted the job on March 22 and officially started on April 1. Never start a job on April Foolâ€™s Day,â€ Miles said. â€œI knew there were going to be hiccups and the buy-in from the players early was low.
â€œBut I feel there is a general managership that goes into building a team, getting guys who are emotionally attached to CSU and want to be a part of something great and want to be a part of the community and be OK if a classmate gives them a hard time about a loss, and I think we have that now.â€
Despite two consecutive seasons where the Rams failed to win 10 games, expectations in 2009-10 were incredibly high for the Rams. With fans feeling like Miles had the experience in Fort Collins under his belt for the team to make some noise, the Rams did just that, defeating CU-Boulder for the first time in three years and sweeping the season series against Utah, Wyoming and Air Force. CSU finished fifth in the MWC standings.
More importantly, CSU made a berth in the College Basketball Invitational, the first postseason tournament for the Rams since reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2003.
But the CBI is nothing compared to where Miles wants to be.
â€œI want this team to play in March and play in the NCAA Tournament. I think we have talent, but there are some things we donâ€™t have,â€ he said. â€œOur guards donâ€™t have great athleticism in terms of quickness, so really, all my concerns are defensively â€“â€“ weâ€™ll be OK on offense.â€
Seven games into the 2010-11 season, Milesâ€™ concerns have proven just. Out of 345 NCAA Division I basketball programs, CSU ranks 17th as a team in field goal percentage at .495. Conversely, only 12 teams have allowed opponents to connect on more three-point attempts.
And with Saturdayâ€™s 76-55 loss to Kansas being planned as a measuring stick to mark CSUâ€™s progress in reconstruction, Miles said he would rather be further along than where the Rams are now.
Still, CSU is staying the course, one that Ogide, now a senior forward, feels should anchor nowhere short of the National Invitational Tournament.
Wherever the Rams finish this season, whether thatâ€™s a postseason berth or not, Miles and CSU have earned the respect of Kansas head coach Bill Self, who knows not only what itâ€™s like to rebuild a program â€“â€“ doing so at both Oral Roberts and Tulsa â€“â€“ but win a national championship.
â€œCoach Miles took over that CSU program when they were not very good,â€ Self said on Saturday. â€œTheyâ€™ve consistently gotten better in a league where itâ€™s hard to get better in because everyone is so good. So I really think heâ€™s done a very nice job.â€
Sports Editor Matt L. Stephens can be reached at email@example.com.