When Tim Miles left North Dakota State five years ago to become coach at Colorado State, he admits he underestimated how difficult turning around the perennial Mountain West bottom feeder was going to be.
Seven of his nine returning scholarship players either quit the team or transferred soon after his first team meeting. The ragtag roster that remained failed to win a league game in his debut season and finished a combined 16-47 in his first two years.
"We spilled a lot of blood here," Miles said. "It was so disheartening starting out and it felt overwhelming at times because as a coach, your essence is built around winning and losing games. You feel like that's the way you're judged, that's how people will view you. So when we were losing early, it was really a difficult time for me."
Better days have arrived at Colorado State (17-9, 6-5) due to Miles' success replenishing the program with skilled players who fit his system. The Rams strengthened their case for the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 2003 by upsetting previously surging New Mexico on Wednesday night, their second win over a ranked opponent this season.
When Colorado State entered mid-February last season on the verge of entering the NCAA tournament picture, the injury-plagued Rams dropped six of their final seven games to fall completely out of contention. It looked as though something similar might happen to this year's team when Colorado State lost at TCU and Boise State earlier this month, but the Rams have now won two straight and carry momentum into back-to-back games against San Diego State and UNLV.
"We're three possessions from being 8-3 in league, but we had some late turnovers and we blew it," Miles said. "I think our guys felt like we squandered an opportunity, yet with this three-game stretch of playing three ranked teams in three games, we knew we had an opportunity to make up for it. We got our first one and now we have more opportunities."
Much like fellow Mountain West schools San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, Miles has built his program with a combination of unheralded high school prospects and high-major transfers. Colorado State's roster doesn't boast the size or athleticism of other schools in the league, but Miles has continually found versatile, skilled players who arrive with the ability to shoot and can be taught to play hard, defend and a rebound.
Only Wagner and Missouri Kansas City were Miles' competition for guard Dorian Green, a native of Lawrence, Kansas who has emerged as Colorado State's second-leading scorer and maybe the Mountain West's best three-point shooter. And Miles landed leading scorer Wes Eikmeier when the guard decided to leave Iowa State after an injury- and illness-plagued freshman season to find a mid-major school better suited to him.
"We've been able to find guys who are tough-minded, play very hard and are skilled on offense," Miles said. "Now when you get those guys defending and rebounding? That's a tough out. So I'm very proud of the buy-in of our players. That makes every day enjoyable to come to work. That makes every day more fun. And that makes for success."
What enabled Colorado State to upset New Mexico on Wednesday after losing by 33 at the Pit earlier this season was doing a better job in transition defense and on the glass. Injuries left Colorado State more shorthanded than usual in the frontcourt, but undersized 6-foot-5 Pierce Hornung outplayed Mountain West player of the year candidate Drew Gordon in the paint and the Rams shot well from behind the arc and the foul line as usual.
Miles is optimistic about the matchup with San Diego State because like Colorado State, the Aztecs are a guard-heavy team that wants to beat teams from the perimeter. The Rams desperately need to either complete a season sweep of San Diego State or upset UNLV in Fort Collins next week to remain in NCAA tournament contention.
"San Diego State has unbelievable talent and Coach Fisher's track record speaks for itself," Miles said. "We know the arena will be rocking, but that excites us. We've been to the Pit. We've been to Duke. We've been to places that prepare us for this moment."
Plus as stressful as life on the bubble can be, Miles knows it sure beats the dismal place the program was when he arrived.