KLEE: This is a basketball state, CSU is a hoops school

By Paul Klee Updated: February 13, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: February 13, 2013

FORT COLLINS — When I finally could hear another voice inside the raging party house that was Moby Arena, there was one man to find.

His name is Bob Cates. Reveling in a capacity crowd, Cates was the single person who could wrap his head around Colorado State’s ascension into college basketball’s Top 25.

“That seems like a long time ago,” Cates told me, a shimmer in his eyes. “Are you sure that’s right?

It’s right, all right. The last time CSU maneuvered itself into a national ranking was 1954. Cates was on the team. On Wednesday, he watched with 8,745 of his closest friends as the No. 24 Rams reaffirmed their ranking with a 66-60 win against San Diego State.

Moby Arena was like a basketball rave with its thumping stereo turned up full blast. It was loud enough one security guard wore earplugs.

As the buzzer sounded on CSU’s 27th straight home win, coach Larry Eustachy made a beeline for the student section. The coach pointed both index fingers at the 3,500 students who made one thing clear: This is a basketball state, and CSU is a basketball school.

“Unbelievable atmosphere — as good as I’ve been. And we all know I was at Iowa State,” Eustachy said. “This game was louder than any game I’ve been in.”

After six years as an AP Top 25 voter, let me be the first to offer this suggestion: At No. 24, CSU is underrated. The Rams are better than that.

On Saturday at Clune Arena, Air Force will need its finest game to beat CSU.

All along, Eustachy had a plan with these Rams: Toughen their hides for the pounding they would endure in the bruising Mountain West. The plan has taken form and the result is a veteran roster that didn't blink and outscored the Aztecs 8-0 over the final 1:30.

“I think that’s probably the loudest we’ve had (at Moby) since we’ve been here,” said senior guard Dorian Green, the singular key to the Rams, whose three-point play sealed the win.

During one wild sequence, I counted five bodies sprawled across the court. The sound of skin sliding over hardwood was like fingernails on a chalkboard — and beautiful music to Eustachy, who preaches effort and toughness. This was Big Ten football in shorts.

No, scratch that. This was Mountain West basketball, action ball, in a league that preys on the timid.

“They could be easily a Sweet 16 team,” Eustachy said of the Aztecs.

I see only two leagues clearly better than the Mountain West: the Big Ten and Big East.

I see no team in the Mountain West clearly better than Colorado State.

Afterward, the buzz among players and coaches concerned the wild sellout crowd, only the second this season at Moby Arena. A school official told me there were between 3,500-4,000 students packed into attendance. As a reference point, in six seasons covering the Big Ten, I only saw one school welcome that many students into a game: Indiana.

National rankings have a mystical effect on a program and a fan base. Put a number next to a team’s name — No. 24 CSU — and strange things happen.

In Fort Collins, doubling as Fort Fun on a basketball Wednesday in mid-February, it hasn’t happened in almost 60 years.

“This is history. This has never really happened here,” Eustachy said. “You would hate to blow the chance to seize the moment. Give our fans all the credit.”

Though Tim Miles left a stocked cupboard, Eustachy deserves his share.

Earlier Wednesday, I text messaged two high-major coaches for their opinion on Eustachy. It was as if I asked a pastor for his view on the New Testament.

“Great coach,” one coach wrote. "Great on defense and a simple offense that works.”

“Gets good athletes, demands discipline on D and rewards them with freedom on offense,” another coach wrote. “Good formula.”

Good enough to create a slice of history, so far.

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