INDIANAPOLIS — As the CSU Rams trudged off the court, “Hail to the Victors” blasting from the Michigan band, there wasn’t a look of surprise on the CSU players. Only sadness.
Sometimes reality's a real son of a gun.
Players know, and they knew No. 11 Michigan was better than No. 6 Colorado State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Quite a bit better. Here’s a wish the 75-63 loss delivered the accurate message to a Rams operation that could return just about everybody next season.
The Rams are right where they should be. They deserved their place in the NCAA Tournament, and a first-round loss was the ceiling. Star forward David Roddy hesitated against the long arms he would see in the NBA. While it says here he’s going to be an NBA player, Roddy should return to CSU for a senior go-round. And coach Niko Medved, a hot commodity even after a hefty contract extension from CSU, should hit "decline" on phone calls from high-majors.
The Rams squeezed everything out of this season, then learned the hard way it's a long way from the Mountain West to the Big Ten. Each time Michigan mountain Hunter Dickinson thumped the Rams on his way to 21 points, and Michigan freshman Frankie Collins scooted past a CSU defender, the gap showed up.
“My 6-6 frame isn’t 7-foot-1,” Roddy said, telling the truth.
That’s not a knock on the best player I’ve seen come through CSU. “An even better man,” as CSU athletic director Joe Parker called Roddy. It’s not a knock on CSU, either. You can respect their historic season and confess the Rams were over-seeded in the NCAA tournament. Both things are true. The other side of a program-record 6 seed is that you’re supposed to win.
Same goes for the Mountain West, which flamed out in the NCAAs yet again — this time with three higher seeds. Wyoming, Colorado State and Boise State all lost before 2 p.m. on the first Thursday of the tournament. Ignore the Twitter trolls, always, but they do have a point.
“I know that will be the narrative,” Medved said.
The crowd in downtown Indianapolis stood and cheered firmly in CSU’s favor during a first half straight out of Cam the Ram’s dreams. The Rams torched the nets with eight three-pointers, four from big man Dischon Thomas, who averaged less than one per game. The Rams also got some help from the local Hoosiers who simply can’t stand Michigan. It's a Big Ten thing.
Three-fifths of the “Fab Five” was there, Jalen Rose and Jimmy King supporting Juwan Howard.
Michigan started three freshmen, one for the first time, against CSU’s five upperclassmen.
“I recall Coach (Steve) Fisher starting five freshmen,” Howard said.
I say this as the biggest David Roddy fan this side of his four brothers: Roddy deferred in crunch time. Was it the long arms up and down Michigan’s lineup that blurred his vision and confidence? The Mountain West’s player of the year had 13 points, seven below his average.
“It was definitely more exhausting trying to get where I want to be,” Roddy said after.
It’s largely because of Roddy the Rams where here in the first place, back in the Big Dance after nine years away. Roddy is the kind of leader who texts photos of the NCAA tournament to encourage his freshmen teammates. A Midwest guy, Roddy had three of his brothers at the game. What an impact so far: CSU carried a 12-20 record when Roddy gave his verbal commitment. Four years later, 25-6, with the same smile that lights up the room.
“We talked about moments like this in our dorm room freshman year,” Isaiah Stevens said.
The moment wasn’t too big for the Rams.
“We might have rushed a shot or two,” Thomas said.
Juwan Howard’s making how much money to coach his alma mater? Sure hope the recruiting continues to sizzle, because there’s no way a roster like Michigan’s should lose 14 games. There is some serious beef and bounce in the Wolverines, a real threat to play past this weekend. Michigan recovered from a 15-point deficit to lock up the Rams down the stretch.
“It was luck, man, just luck,” Howard said of the comeback. “The basketball gods, man.”
What’s next for a CSU program that’s on the rise? Well, depends if the central actors stick around. I asked Medved if he expects the NBA will be a consideration for Roddy, whose profile took a leap this season. Do it right, and CSU could return four of five starters next season.
“I think so. I think David can play at that level,” said Medved, who added Roddy will enter the pre-draft process with the option of returning to school.
“I support him 1,000 percent in doing that,” Medved said.
Blowing a big lead is going to stick with the Rams for a lifetime. You could feel their hurt. But they proved through this season they deserved a spot in the NCAA tournament — and a first-round loss. Right where they should be.
“It’s a huge feat and a huge step forward,” Medved said.
Stick around, and all of a sudden the Sweet 16 at CSU becomes the goal, not a dream.