Never has a battle for fifth place in the Mountain West Conference seemed more important than it will during Saturday's game in Fort Collins between Colorado State and Utah.
On one side, you have a school whose pure hope of landing a postseason tournament bid riding on one game. On the other, a school who's seen a rough fall from grace since winning the Mountain West Conference Championships just two seasons ago.
For the Rams of Colorado State, Senior Day essentially becomes a one-game season. Win, and you're eligible for the College Basketball Invitational or CollegeInsider.com Tournament—posting the same conference record that rival Wyoming did a season ago before going on to host a CBI game. Lose, and you follow in the footsteps of the CSU football team this past fall who came out to a hot start with an impressive win, only to fall from grace and not qualify for the postseason.
For Utah, the game appears to be more about pride and sending a young team out with a .500 regular season record. The Utes have proven they can play with better teams by sweeping UNLV, along with rather impressive victories over Utah State and Illinois. Still, they haven't shown it can be a consistent chain of events.
Beyond pride or the postseason, this game also is a battle to prove who's the best of the rest. New Mexico, BYU, UNLV, and San Diego State have all stumbled at some point this season, but still have managed to remain the league's dominant teams.
All six conference wins for the Rams have been against the lower-tier teams—the only "impressive" one being a road victory in Salt Lake City.
Overall, the Utes have played better in MWC action, but a stumble at Wyoming will loom large as it's ultimately been the most surprising loss of the year, and now puts them in position to try finishing in the middle of the pack.
Despite what I expect to be a relatively small turnout at Moby Arena on Saturday, I still expect CSU to come out on top. While the Rams tout only one senior starter, Harvey Perry, who comes off the bench to be a lockdown defender, and Mame Bocar Ba, who despite not being the most talent post player, always looks like he's playing harder than anyone else when he's in the game replacing Andy Ogide.
This game is about a shot at the postseason for CSU. Even though it's guaranteed the Rams won't play in the Championship's play-in game (known to Ram fans as the Colorado State Invitational) for the first time since Tim Miles took over the program three seasons ago, this team set out goals that they've been very vocal about all year—one of those being to play in the postseason.
No one expects Colorado State to make a Cinderella run through the MWC Championships like they did in 2003 to land a NCAA Tournament bid. Matt Newton is long gone. With the NIT completely off the table, the CBI or CIT are the two tournaments that remain.
Given the fact Oregon State won the CBI a year ago, it's not exactly the most prestigious postseason tournament to land in, but it's a heck of a long way from an 0-16 conference season only two years ago.