LOUISVILLE — Donte Poole was half of a credit from being a Colorado State Ram instead of part of Murray State's dynamic backcourt.
He spent a summer in Fort Collins and loved the promise Rams Coach Tim Miles gave of allowing him to take any shot he wanted. But when Poole got his grades, he says he ended up half a credit in math short of qualifying.
Now he's part two of the one-two punch of the Racers' backcourt along with Isaiah Canaan and part of a team that's been called the mid-major darling this year.
After coming up short academically, Poole, who grew up in Las Vegas, decided to take the prep school route in suburban Atlanta near family and reopened his recruitment.
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Had he qualified at Colorado State, Poole said, "Oh yeah, I'd still be there."
Poole will start for sixth-seeded Murray State (30-1) against Colorado State (20-11) on Thursday afternoon in the West Regional. None of the current 11th-seeded Rams know Poole well because of their youth, but they recognize on tape how dangerous the shooting guard who is averaging 14.2 points is.
"When I heard his name I thought for a second, 'Wait a second, I've heard that name before,'" Rams guard Jesse Carr said. "Pretty crazy. And watching film, it'd be nice to have him here, honestly. We're looking forward to going at him."
The Rams are making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2003 and haven't advanced past their opening game in 22 years. They've flown across the country and will be at a decided disadvantage playing a Bluegrass team in its home state — even if most of the fans will be clad in Kentucky's royal blue instead of Murray State's navy shade.
"We've kind of been looked at as kind of an underdog all year long," said guard Wes Eikmeier, who leads the Rams with 15.6 points per game. "I know that the gym's probably not going to be in our favor" Thursday.
The spotlight will primarily be on Canaan, who is averaging 19.2 points and had to grow up quickly following his own NCAA Tournament nightmare two years ago as a freshman. After the Racers hit the first buzzer-beating shot of the 2010 tournament to beat Vanderbilt, Canaan lost the ball in the closing seconds of their next game against Butler, and Murray State lost by two points.
"He was obviously crushed," first-year Murray State coach Steve Prohm said.
Canaan said it was a learning experience and motivation he needed.
"Things like that you can either go down or go up. I wanted to learn from it and build on it," Canaan said. "I watched it enough to know it from back to front. Like I said it was a learning experience for me."
It's been a learning experience for Miles, too, in program building after taking over the Rams in 2007.
"When you talk about the journey from five years ago, I'd go into convulsions," Miles said.
Colorado State believed it had done enough last season to earn an at-large bid from the Mountain West Conference. Instead, it took another run and another wait on the bubble. This year, the résumé included a demanding nonconference schedule and wins over San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico.
But the Rams aren't completely healthy. Forward Greg Smith says his sprained right ankle is not fully healed.
"I'm going to be able to do everything I need to do," Smith said. "It's going to hurt a little bit, but I'm going to be fine."
They'll need him to since both the Racers and Rams boast similar size with neither team starting a player taller than 6-foot-7. Colorado State even has garnered a nickname for their tiny tenacity.
"We've been called everything from ankle-biters to scrappy all year long," Rams guard Dorian Green said. "We always talk about we don't look like the best team in warmups, but we come out and play hard and execute well."