Is surging Colorado State now the Mountain West's third best?

Last February, in the closing moments of an 80-72 home loss to UNLV, Colorado State forward Travis Franklin cried on the bench after fouling out, beating himself up mentally over a woeful 3-of-14 performance from the free throw line.

Many of those misses were late, and could have put CSU over the hump in a game that was close all the way.

"He was devastated," Rams coach Tim Miles recalled. "In the locker room, the kid's eyes were swollen by the time I even got in there."

That night was symbolic of CSU's entire 2009-10 season when it came to playing against the Mountain West's 'Big Four' (UNLV, San Diego State, BYU and New Mexico): Good effort, no wins.

They were 0-8 against them a year ago with a couple of blowouts mixed in, and Miles knew that if his program was going to take the next step, beating them was a necessity.

The Rams did just that on Wednesday night, not only upsetting UNLV on the road, but running them out of the gym in 78-63 fashion.

"After last year, it was 'OK, we need to be in the top four, so lets just set a bottom line of we're not going to settle for less,'" said Miles, whose team finished fifth in the nine-team league last spring. "You can talk yourself blue in the face, and there's just a time where you have to put up or shut up."

For 40 minutes at the Thomas & Mack Center, CSU had the look of a team that expected to win. UNLV never led and trailed by as many as 17 points in the second half.

Doing the most damage? Fittingly, it was Franklin, who scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

"We belong," he said afterwards. "We've just got to keep winning and showing the conference that we belong and things will work out."

With the win, surging CSU is now 13-5 overall and an even more impressive 3-1 in the Mountain West. Wednesday's triumph gave the Rams sole possession of third place in the league behind No. 6 San Diego State (20-0, 5-0) and No. 9 BYU (18-1, 4-0).

With the struggles of UNLV (14-5, 2-3) and New Mexico (13-6, 1-3) — both NCAA tourney teams a year ago — it's been thought of late that the MWC might be only a three-bid league this March instead of sending four for a second straight year.

But is Colorado State now in the driver's seat for that potential third invite?

Of the three, UNLV has the highest RPI ranking (34), but its losing record early in league play and inability to play at the same level it was during a torrid 9-0 start to the season is a bit alarming.

New Mexico is in even worse shape in the conference, ranks No. 77 in RPI and is suffering from a leadership void in the wake of Roman Martinez's graduation. Its rock from a year ago — point guard Dairese Gary — is having a wildly inconsistent senior campaign. The Lobos suffered their second bad loss in MWC play on Wednesday, falling 82-72 at Utah, and Saturday's showdown with the Rebels in Las Vegas is as close to a must-win as you'll find in mid-January.

The Rams are No. 49 in the RPI and have three strong wins now on their résumé — UNLV, Ole Miss and Southern Miss. They've also earned added respect by playing 11 of 18 games away from home. Playing with mostly the same personnel it did a year ago, CSU looks the part of a much more mature, hungry and disciplined bunch.

If they can find the magic again on Saturday,when BYU comes to Fort Collins, the answer will be much clearer.

Ryan Greene covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun.

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