Jan 222012
Authors: Cris Tiller

New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV.

What do they all have in common? At this point all three are NCAA Tournament teams and each team plays CSU in the next two weeks.

March feels like a long way off, but the reality is the season rests on a three-game stretch in late January for CSU men’s basketball.

If the Rams expect to enter the Big Dance for the first time since 2002, they need to win two of these next three games.

Up to now CSU, for the most part, has done what it needed to do: beat the teams they should and defend its home court. The eight-game winning streak looks nice, but the Rams lack two critical components to NCAA postseason worthiness: road wins and signature victories.

This three-game run gives them the chance to accomplish both and what’s more, against quality opponents.

The first opportunity comes in Albuquerque, N.M. in one of the most hostile environments in college basketball. The Pit is a stifling arena with passionate, crazed fans — just the type of place to garner the attention of the selection committee come March.

New Mexico is second in the conference in scoring, third in defense and scores on average 14 more points than its opponents. Going into their house and leaving with a win gives CSU both a road win and signature victory in one shot.

Up next is the biggest game of the entire season. No. 16 San Diego State comes to Moby Arena on Saturday in what is likely to be a competitive rematch of last season’s most exciting game.

The good news is last year’s hero for San Diego State, D.J. Gay, is gone. The bad news is the Aztecs return with a team nearly as strong as the previous year’s edition.

Tim Miles has talked all season about defending Moby and looking at all home games as must-wins, but few games are as important as this one. Of the three games in this stretch, this one has to be won.

San Diego State is first in the Mountain West at 17-2 and 4-1 on the road this season. By the time the Aztecs arrive on Saturday they may very well be a top-10 team.

A victory secures CSU the premiere win on the season and makes a statement on its home court. A win would also help boost the Rams’ RPI, which will continue to drop as they play lesser teams in the conference. There are no excuses for this game. They need to win.

The final leg brings the Rams to Las Vegas and the toughest test against No. 14 UNLV.

The Rebels boast the most impressive resume with wins against No. 8 (then No. 1) North Carolina and No. 22 Illinois. Both wins came at home, where UNLV is 12-0. The Rebels rank eighth in the NCAA in points per game and third in assists.

I don’t expect CSU to go into the Thomas and Mack Center and leave with a win, but a strong showing would help the Rams’ reputation with the selection committee.

The challenge makes it even more critical that CSU steals a win in New Mexico and seals the deal at home.

Just performing well in the next two weeks isn’t enough in itself to get CSU back to the Tournament. The Rams still need to win the conference games they are supposed to win and continue to perform well at home.

But losing all three games can’t be an option, or all hope is lost.

Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 2:22 pm

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