For the second straight season Fort Collins has contracted NCAA Tournament fever.
The Rams finished 2011-12 on a hot streak, winning four of their past five games including two home upsets over top-20 teams. But the groundwork for this seasonâ€™s success was laid long ago.
CSU didnâ€™t make the NCAA Tournament last season, but this year has been different. CSU menâ€™s basketballâ€™s success was born from its failure.
Go back in time, over a year ago. The Rams found themselves in a similar position. They were on the bubble struggling to prove they belonged among college basketballâ€™s elite. Tiptoeing the line between first four in and last four out.
But CSU stumbled and fell flat on its face. It missed out on opportunities for marquee wins against San Diego State and UNLV. Both were close losses within the Ramsâ€™ grasp, but they slipped through their fingers due to their inability to seal the deal.
What momentum CSU gained was lost, ending the season with four losses in five games. The deadliest of the losses came at the hands of in-state rival Air Force. The Falcons dismantled CSU and stomped out its NCAA Tournament dreams.
The Ramsâ€™ hopes were shattered into a million tiny pieces and the pain lingered. But the pain served as a lesson.
â€œAs a player, you canâ€™t look that far ahead (to the NCAA Tournament). We all know that,â€ junior Wes Eikmeier said. â€œLast year I think it kind of got to us a little bit. We had that slide at the end of the year. That was a great learning experience especially for the guys that played a lot last year.â€
Flash forward to this season. The Rams again found themselves in NCAA discussions, but unlike the season before, they proved they deserve a pair of dancing shoes.
CSU went out and scheduled tough opponents to boost RPI and generate exposure. In games the Rams faded in last season, they shined. They thoroughly beat down San Diego State at home, held off New Mexico and showed their guts and determination in a comeback against UNLV.
These Rams are battle tested, resilient. Sure theyâ€™ve had disappointments. Losses in Wyoming, Boise and Fort Worth come to mind, but instead of collapsing under the pressure, the Rams have stayed afloat.
â€œGoing through the highs and lows, I wouldnâ€™t trade it for anything in the world,â€ Eikmeier said of this season. â€œItâ€™s been a really fun ride especially down the stretch when weâ€™re having this success.â€
While CSU has done what it needed to do in the seasonâ€™s final games, a little more work is still left before the Rams can punch their ticket to the Big Dance. With a record of 19-10, the Rams need to perform well in the Mountain West Tournament.
One win helps, but with names like Connecticut sitting on the bubble, I wouldnâ€™t feel too confident in CSUâ€™s chances. Two wins means 21 victories on the season and combined with a high strength of schedule and RPI, count the Rams in.
This yearâ€™s team is different. The players remember the agony of tripping at the finish line, coming so close to living out a dream. But the pain has made them stronger.
Now all that stands between Eikmeier and his teammates making the dream become a reality is a trip to Las Vegas.
â€œWeâ€™re going to Vegas to win, so that going to be our goal and whatever happens after that will take care of itself.â€
Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.