When Tim Miles ditched Colorado State for Nebraska last March, it was clear the Rams were losing someone special.
Miles was the man that turned a terrible CSU Rams basketball program into a perennial postseason participant, reaching the pinnacle – the NCAA Tournament – little more than a year ago.
The image of Miles' players standing in amazement when their name was called during Selection Sunday last year is one of the most wonderful moments in Colorado State sports history, it represents the recognition of earning that March Madness bid and it continues to be the wallpaper of my desktop some 11 months later.
Seeing those widemouthed grins, the hands-the-air jubilation and furious fist-pumps of joy bring a smile to my face every time I see the pic, especially after following these men closely for the last three years.
Thanks to Miles, those many Midwest natives realized their potential and earned their way into the big dance.
Miles molded these young men into what they have become, working with raw talent to get each one of them to play at their best.
At 6'5” tall, Pierce Hornung is too small to play power forward in Division I college basketball, yet he excels. Last year, when Miles was the man in Fort Collins, the Rams were much smaller than this season, lacking a true center with 6'8” Will Bell as the man in the middle. In a perfect world, Bell would have been the power forward and Hornung the small forward, with Greg Smith at shooting guard. But for CSU, a team that continually has to search for diamonds in the rough, a lack of size was just business as usual.
What Hornung was asked to do last year was crazy, and how he responded was phenomenal.
The man was third in the Mountain West Conference in rebounding as a junior, and he was actually asked to play not only power forward against 6'7” and taller players, but to play against opposing centers at times, too.
Two more examples of Miles getting the most out of his players stick out from last year; Dwight Smith and Kaipo Sabas. Smith stands at 6'3” (listed at 6'4”) and was actually utilized as a power forward at times in a pinch. He's got the athleticism to jump out of the gym, and plays like a big man, but he's simply to small to do what was asked of him against the giants. Sabas was a small shooting specialist, a walk-on Fort Collins hometown kid that made the team. He wasn't quick enough, not fast enough to keep up with opposing guards, but when he was on, he could shoot lights-out from beyond the arc. Both Dwight Smith and Sabas were key members of last season's NCAA team; without them, the Rams wouldn't have made the tourney.
And for how much Miles seemed to squeeze every bit of potential out of every player, Larry Eustachy's pushed them even further.
Hornung's not only a beastly rebounder, he's added an element of shooting to his game. Greg Smith has become much more fundamentally sound in his rebounding, finding opponents and bodying them up before jumping for the ball. Dorian Green – the most underrated player on the team who's started every single game at point guard in his four-year career – has become a much better on-ball defender this season, and isn't afraid to take the clutch shots for his team.
Eustachy, the embattled head coach that rose to the mountain top and has endured an infamous fall from graces, has come in and revolutionized Rams basketball.
It's not just that he's demanded greatness out of the individuals, he's asked them to come together as a true team. Without the team basketball they've been playing – which hinges on player and ball movement as well as player movement – CSU would be just another team.
But the team ball that Eustachy's selling and the group of senior starters have bought into has paid dividends; Colorado State is currently ranked No. 24 in the nation, their first top 25 ranking since 1954.
Fort Collins is home to the unquestioned best rebounding team in the nation; the Rams lead in rebounding overall (42.5), rebounding margin +13.8 and are No. 1 and 2 in OReb% and DReb% respectively.
To put that in perspective, CSU only grabbed 31.6 boards per game last year; it's an improvement of nearly 11 rebounds per game with almost the same talent. Of course, Colton Iverson's 9.8 boards lead the team, and his 6'10” size is an incredibly important addition for the team's success.
Miles went out and got Iverson to transfer from Minnesota, where he found little playing time through three seasons, and Colt 45 has provided the missing piece to the puzzle; height.
But Eustachy has gotten them to all play together like never before – this is arguably the greatest basketball team in the history of Colorado State University. They've set multiple school records, including the largest margin of victory over a conference foe and the 27-game home winning streak that dates back to Miles' reign, and they're actually improving as the regular season winds down.
Miles was a great coach, he turned a 7-25 team into a 20-8 squad, but it's becoming clear that Eustachy is even better.
Miles was legitimately a great guy; he's a family man of high moral fiber, and you always got the sense that he was telling you what he really thought. He spoke off-the-cuff, smiling, cracking jokes; Miles love life and coaching basketball.
Eustachy is completely different. He's more reserved when it comes to talking to the media, calculated in his answers. During his introductory presser, Eustachy admitted he's learned over the years that if he rambles on for a while while answering a question, he faces less questions. His team hasn't lost a game at home all season, yet after every win, he looks more like his team struggled through a loss. He's never satisfied, and it shows in his demeanor and through the words he speaks.
Miles got on his players, but compared to Eustachy, he was a big ol' softie. Coach E calls quick timeouts in front of a home arena; enough to embarrass his players with a verbal thrashing that's so loud it's audible in the crowd. He's also quick to pull his starters if need be, getting in their ear on the sideline. His halftime speeches must be epic; he's a truly emotional coach that knows just how to push the young men he leads.
While they faded in the end of games last year, the Rams are notably a second half team this season, wearing down opponents with their extra effort and physical play – their experience cannot be overrated. Neither can Eustachy's 30-plus years as a head coach.
This has become arguably the greatest Colorado State basketball team in the history of the school – their last seven games will be tremendously tough – and both coaches are legendary in their own right.
Without Miles, none of this year's success could have been realized; he built the foundation, recruited the players and help bring them to the DI level. Eustachy's taken them to new heights, and even though the old ball coach says they'll run out of time before realizing their full potential, the sky's the limit for his Rams.
CSU takes on Air Force in Colorado Springs Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. MT.