In 2007, a young, personable head coach from Doland, S.D. came to CSU with a smile on his face and a curious knack for winning basketball games.
His passion was undeniable and his record as a head coach spoke for itself.
He amassed a winning record, 212-132, after 12 seasons at the helm of small programs. At North Dakota State he went from 11 wins in year one, to two 20 win seasons and upsets of ranked opponents. He garnered a reputation for taking struggling programs and spinning them into winners.
That man was Tim Miles and in his fifth season in charge of menâ€™s basketball heâ€™s proved that his reputation was well-earned.
Miles inherited a basketball program completely depleted of talent, expectation and hope. He had one returning starter from the previous regime and it showed, as the Rams lost every single conference game and won just seven games all year.
Milesâ€™ Rams made modest progress in year two crawling to nine wins (four in conference), then a step winning 16 games and finally last year a leap to 19 wins and a near NCAA Tournament berth.
But the transformation from a bad team to a good team is the easy step. Itâ€™s the metamorphosis from good to great where the real challenge begins. And itâ€™s in this chapter of Milesâ€™ coaching career where CSU basketball finds itself now. Stuck.
Stuck in a limbo between just another good team in a competitive conference and a member of the elite. At 17-10 the Rams have proved theyâ€™re a team no one should take lightly, especially at home where they boast a 13-1 record. But theyâ€™re not a team anyone fears.
The Rams are just 6-6 in Mountain West games. For every win they have against the MWâ€™s best (New Mexico and San Diego State) thereâ€™s a loss to Wyoming, TCU and Boise State. The MW has developed from top to bottom, leaving CSU lost somewhere in the middle.
â€œThis conference is nuts,â€ said junior Dorian Green after a win over Wyoming Feb. 18. â€œI donâ€™t think people would have thought (the conference) was going to be like this at the beginning of the year.
â€œObviously, itâ€™s one of the best conferences in the country from top to bottom. Every team has improved.â€
So what does CSU need to break through the greatness barrier?
The simplest answer is time. What Miles has managed to do in less than five years time is impressive, but nobody (outside of Miles) expected the Rams to be at this point already. What CSU needs to do with that time is find a big man.
Miles has stocked up his backcourt with a plethora of guards routinely playing a four or five man rotation in any given game, but the weakness this year is a hole in the middle.
Donâ€™t get me wrong, Pierce Hornung is an absolute beast on the boards and his hustle is off the charts. Will Bell, when healthy, is dangerous inside and he possesses a consistent jump shot from 15 feet. But at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 theyâ€™re just small forwards or big guards more so than legitimate centers.
CSU puts out one of the smallest lineups in the conference with essentially no depth at the forward possession. Throw in a difference maker like New Mexicoâ€™s Drew Gordon with one or two other guys to eat up some minutes and fouls, and this team matches up more favorably with the top two remaining teams in the MW going forward (New Mexico and UNLV).
Next year holds the potential to significantly crack the greatness barrier with the additions of talented 6-foot-10 senior Colton Iverson and a slashing guard in sophomore Daniel Bejarano. Both bring size and skill to complement a veteran roster in 2012-13.
Miles instilled a winning attitude to a program devoid of hope so who knows, based on what he believes in his team, maybe the Rams are ready to take the final plunge.
â€œI think our guys have played well,â€ said Miles following last Saturdayâ€™s victory over New Mexico. â€œI know we havenâ€™t always been victorious, but at the same time itâ€™s not like our kids have been out of the play or not there.
â€œWeâ€™re right there and we can play with any of these guys.â€
Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at email@example.com.