Hoopheads across America might have trouble wrapping their brains around the obvious: Humble Colorado State is a better basketball team in 2012 than mighty Connecticut, the defending national champion.
But just because these upstart Rams are more deserving of a bid to the NCAA Tournament than a UConn hoops program on probation for recruiting violations and in hot water for lousy academic performance, it doesn't guarantee Colorado State will receive an invitation to March Madness when the field of 68 is chosen.
And CSU coach Tim Miles knows the score. "The fact is we need to win more games," Miles said Thursday, in the warm afterglow of his team's 66-59 upset of nationally ranked Nevada-Las Vegas. "We have work to do."
The task at hand for Colorado State is to force respect from the basketball elite in the NCAA, where the "C" might as well stand for cronyism. Despite recording victories this season against acclaimed foes such as UNLV (then-No. 17 in The Associated Press poll), San Diego State (No. 13) and New Mexico (No. 18), the Rams can't afford to stumble before Selection Sunday on March 11.
Why? At the risk of incurring the wrath of movers and shakers in college basketball, there is inherent bias in favor of traditional powers. Any issue put up to a vote involves politics. If the NCAA committee responsible for selecting and seeding the tourney field has to choose among bubble teams such as Arizona and Colorado State, which program do you think will have more respect in the room? "I hope the committee members don't look at it that way. I hope they live in the moment," Miles told me. "You do worry if it comes down to you and UConn and Xavier that tradition will play a role."
The chairman of the 10-person basketball committee is Jeff Hathaway, recently retired athletic director at UConn and currently an adviser for the Big East Conference. Anybody else see a small conflict of interest here?
Sports fans in Colorado might recall Hathaway kept the AD seat warm in Fort Collins for two years shortly after the turn of the century, when his fondness toward our state seemed lukewarm at best. Call me a cynic, but is it any wonder why bracketologists who update projections for the 68-team field by the minute predict the Big East will land 10 bids, including one by the Huskies, doomed to finish the regular season with a losing conference record?
At the beginning of this week, as Miles surveyed his team's final regular-season dates against UNLV and Air Force, plus the possibility of three games in the Mountain West tourney, he told players they needed to win at least three times to kick down the door to the Big Dance. After beating the Rebels, however, Miles confessed: "Shoot, I wish I had told them four."
The Rams wage the battle for little guys everywhere. The MW is cast as a mid-major conference. How could CSU possibly be more worthy of an NCAA bid than UConn? All the way from here in the Rocky Mountains, you can practically hear ESPN hoops analyst (and Duke alum) Jay Bilas spit his coffee at that crazy notion. The Huskies take the floor with Mr. NBA Draft Lottery, guard Jeremy Lamb, while the Rams counter with unsung local hero Pierce Hornung, who might not intimidate anybody in a layup line at the YMCA.
For Colorado State to crash the tournament as an at-large participant, the MW will need to pilfer four bids, probably at the expense of the Pac-12, where traditional powers such as Arizona and UCLA have not achieved even one marquee victory between them.
"I think our league is clearly stronger than the Pac-12," Miles said.
While legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun has watched his program slimed by the scandal of former recruit Nate Miles and academic shortcomings so severe the NCAA already has banned the Huskies from next season's tourney, Miles has rolled up his sleeves and rebuilt strong belief that CSU basketball can return to its glory days.
Shouldn't integrity count for something? Or is NCAA basketball all about the Benjamins?
Mark Kiszla: firstname.lastname@example.org