2007 Basketball Blue Ribbon Preview: Colorado State

Here is the MWC 2007 basketball previews, and the order of these previews will be in reverse order of how I feel the conference will finish.

COACH AND PROGRAM

When Tim Miles became the 19th coach in Colorado State history, he inherited a program that could have returned as many as four starters and eight letter winners from a 17-13 team.

Instead, Miles, hired to replace Dale Layer after seven seasons of mostly mediocrity, with the notable exception the 2003 MWC Tournament championship run, will open his first season with just two players that have ever played a game of Division I basketball.

The departure of Jason Smith (16.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, .579 FG), who was the 20th pick in the NBA draft, was expected, but the losses of Tyler Smith (10.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), Stephan Gilling (8.9 ppg, .435 3PT), Tim Denson (8.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) and several other reserves were not.

”We started with eight and kind of worked our way down to a workable number,” Miles said with a laugh about the number of players CSU had going through individual workouts in the spring.

The players that left did so for a variety of reasons, some transferring to be closer to home, some transferring down for more playing time. Freshman Xavier Kilby was suspended and even-tually left the program for pointing a loaded gun at a teammate’s head during an altercation. That’s as fast a way as any to get gone.

PLAYERS

The result is a Colorado State team that is practically brand new. The team has two returnees, and large ones at that — 7-0 senior Stuart Creason (10.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, .670 FG) and 7-0 sophomore Ronny Aguilar, who scored a total of two points in 11 games last season.

The Rams lost 85 percent of their offense, 92 percent of their assists and 84 percent of their rebounding.

”It’s not an optimal situation to step in to,” Miles said. ”At the same time, if you’ve got to go through it, you might as well go through it right away and get things the way you want to. It might be a blessing in disguise.”

While most expect the 2007-08 season to be a difficult one, Miles brings with him the hope of brighter days for a program that hasn’t had a winning record in conference play since 2000. Miles arrives in Fort Collins after a successful six-year tenure at North Dakota State, where he transitioned the Bison from Division II into Division I play, gaining national notoriety along the way.
Playing as a Division I independent (NDSU is joining the Summit League this year), the Bison carved a role as a giant killer, beating a pair of top 10 teams on the road. North Dakota State won at Wisconsin during the 2005-06 season and won at then-No. 8 Marquette last year, part of a 20-8 season, shining a spotlight on the work Miles was doing.

When Colorado State director of athletics Paul Kowalczyk came calling, Miles jumped at the opportunity to join arguably the country’s premier non-BCS basketball league. Miles will bring his motion offense and man-to-man defensive philosophy to the Rams. The issue is assembling the personnel to allow his team to threaten the MWC’s elite.

Creason is a legitimate low-post threat, and when he gets the ball in position to score is nearly automatic; last season he led the MWC in field goal percentage. He has shown the ability to be a prolific scorer at times, including a 19-point, seven-rebound effort in CSU’s quarterfinal upset of San Diego State in the MWC Tournament, but Creason hasn’t consistently played at that level.

With Smith taking his high-flying game to the NBA and his former teammates dispersed throughout the country, Creason will have to be more assertive demanding the ball on offense and must improve his rebounding. He was second in the league in blocked shots (2.13) and will anchor the Rams’ defense.

It’s hard to know what to expect out of Aguilar, the only other returnee. He red-shirted in 2005-06 and played just 19 minutes last season. A former volleyball and football player in high school, Aguilar is reasonably athletic and, obviously, will be given every opportunity to earn minutes.

Miles brought in eight new players, though two of them — 6-8 sophomore Andy Ogide (Ole Miss) and 6-10 sophomore Dan Vandervieren (Purdue) — must sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules. CSU will have only eight scholarship players eligible this season, but Miles worked with limited numbers at NDSU as well.

Miles is pleased with the talent level of the incoming players, particularly in the backcourt. A pair of junior college transfers 6-0 junior Marcus Walker from Indian Hills (Iowa) Commu-nity College and 6-1 junior Willis Gardner from Ohlone (Calif.) Community College are expected to be the starting guards.

”We will look to them for leadership,” Miles said. ”I think they are going to be very good for us and good players in the conference. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. They can score and create opportunities for others. I think they are highly capable players.”

Gardner will run the point and the duo is expected to be the team’s best two perimeter shooters as well. Gardner averaged 11 points and shot 51 percent from the field and three-point range last season.

Freshman Jesse Woodard from Compton Centennial High School in Los Angeles is a 6-1 guard, an excellent shooter and a three-star recruit, according to Rivals.com. At one time, Woodard, who had an offer from USC, was among the most highly regarded players in the 2007 class until injuries slowed his development.

Donte Poole of Mojave High School in Las Vegas, a 6-2 freshman, is another talented young combo guard who will figure into the rotation. He averaged 19.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists a year ago.

”I like our guard play and we start over with two 7-footers,” Miles said. ”We have a chance to have a good inside-outside punch and that gives me optimism.”

What gives Miles cause for concern is the situation at forward. He has a pair freshmen in 6-4 Josh Simmons of Westfield High School in Houston and 6-6 Andre McFarland of Las Ve-gas, but both are wing players. McFarland has the skill to score on the perimeter, or he can take the ball to the basket. Simmons, who averaged 15 points, six assists and three steals as a senior in high school, is probably the team’s best athlete.

McFarland and Simmons both appear to have bright futures, but neither is a power forward. The reality is the Rams don’t have a power forward on the roster, so Miles will likely be forced to play unconventional lineups to make up for the holes in his roster.

”My wife said it best, ‘It’s the same thing everywhere we go,’ ” said Miles, who has also served as the head coach at Southwest Minnesota State and Mayville University. ”We’ve al-ways had to rebuild each program we’ve been through. It’s just the way it is. You’ve got to get players, high achievers, and you have to get players with the right mentality.”

The most accurate grade for Colorado State would be an incomplete. The only certainties around the program are Miles, who has proven through his success at North Dakota State he can X and O with the best of them, and Creason, who could be one of the MWC’s best big men.

After that, who knows? There may not be a more inexperienced team in the nation. CSU has eight scholarship players eligible to play. Two of them are junior college transfers, four are true freshmen and one is a sophomore with 19 minutes of playing time to his credit.

Miles likes Gardner and Walker, but there is often an adjustment period for junior college players and the Rams don’t have the luxury of giving them time. The lack of a power forward will make rebounding difficult, and CSU can’t afford any injuries.

If Gardner and Walker are ready to play at a high level from the outset and Creason takes a big step forward, Colorado State will be competitive. But this is a team with no margin for error.

The Rams will play hard and Miles will try to scheme his way around the roster deficiencies, but this season figures to be rough.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: C
BENCH/DEPTH: D
FRONTCOURT: C
INTANGIBLES: B

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