Posted: 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013
By Jacob Schildgen
The 2012-13 campaign was a signature season for Larry Eustachy and Rams basketball. Behind a group of five seniors, Colorado State nearly took the regular season Mountain West title before New Mexico's Kendall Williams put up 46 points in Fort Collins, ending the nation's second longest active home win streak. The Rams finished the season second in the Mountain West, but lost to UNLV in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament. Fortunately, they had their eyes on a bigger prize.
After flirting with the NCAA Tournament bubble for much of the 2012 season, the Rams made sure there was little doubt they would get in during 2013. It was simply a matter of what seed they would get, and who they were going to be playing. The Rams drew the eight seed in the Midwest region and a favorable matchup against an inconsistent Missouri squad, but any chance for a Final Four was abolished with a draw against number one seeded Louisville if the Rams advanced.
Before worrying about the Cardinals, Eustachy and Co. had a game against eventual NBA draft picks Phil Pressey and Alex Oriakhi and a Mizzou team that could put up points quickly. But from the opening tip, the Rams dominated the game through the backboard and defensively. Combined with a stunning 26 point performance from Dorian Green, Colorado State clinched their first NCAA tournament win in 24 years.
Unfortunately, the Rams ran into the red brick wall that is the Louisville Cardinals. With an army of fans making the short trip to Lexington, the Rams entered a virtual home game for the Cardinals in front of 20,000 dressed in red. The Cardinals fed on that energy early, going straight to a full-court press and forcing the Rams into several quick turnovers with each one electrifying the atmosphere more and more. The Cardinals went on to win handily, leaving the five Ram seniors and their coach on a bitter note to end the season.
Regardless of the final result of the season, what the 2013 squad accomplished was remarkable, and players like Colton Iverson, Greg Smith, Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green, Pierce Hornung, and Jesse Carr will always be one of the greatest Colorado State teams to ever play the game. Now those six have all moved on to start their professional careers and a new chapter of Colorado State basketball will begin this season. With that in mind, let's take a look at this year's team.
With the loss of five starters from last season, it is likely the allocation of playing time will be pretty fluid to start the season. Guards Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano will see increased roles in the offense and will see most of the minutes in the backcourt. Joe De Ciman could be an x-factor for the Rams with his scoring ability if he translates his time playing with the Canadian Junior National team to this season. Dwight Smith will likely fill a similar mold to the 2011-2012 season as a defensive specialist/scoring spark, but needs to overcome some maturity issues.
The front court will be the biggest gap to fill this year with the departure of rebounding virtuoso Pierce Hornung and NBA draft pick Colton Iverson. Iverson nearly averaged a double-double with 14.2 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, and made it extremely hard for opposing teams to score in the paint. Hornung had 8.4 points and 8.9 rebounds a game and was the biggest key to Colorado State's rebounding success, especially on the offensive glass.
No player on the roster right now will be able to single-handedly replicate that production, but if they can perform well as a unit, it is possible to minimize that lost production. Gerson Santo will get most of the minutes at "center", and had moments of brilliance last year. Newcomers JJ Avila and Marcus Holt will need to immediately contribute for this team to be stout in the middle. Avila has the ability to step out and shoot and can stretch defenses. Holt has potential, but will need time to develop his game on the Division 1 level. Expect Bejarano to be a key player in the rebounding category; he had 5.5 per game a year ago.
Another factor to worry about is the lack of leadership on this squad. All the coveted senior leadership from last year is gone and it will be interesting to see who will step up and provide the vocal leadership so instrumental to making young teams successful. My bet is on true freshman point guard David Cohn. Early talk from practices is that he is a special player, and could be the reincarnation of Dorian Green. Despite his youth, Cohn is a winner and did so in Chicago against some of the toughest competition in the country.
Starters: Cohn, Octeus, Bejarano, Avila, Santo
Off the Bench: Smith, Holt, De Ciman, Hurst
With a roster filled mostly with his players, Eustachy will try to get back to his upbeat brand of basketball. The Rams have athleticism across the board and will use it to their advantage to tire teams out. Defense and rebounding will still be key tenants, but expect less success than last year due to the lack of a large interior presence. There should be better perimeter defense this season, so it is likely someone like New Mexico's Alex Kirk will go off rather than Kendall Williams or Derrick Marks. One thing is for sure, Ram fans will be treated to a different kind of basketball than in years past.
11/11 @Gonzaga, 11/19 @UTEP, 12/3 Colorado, 12/11 University of Denver
Daniel Bejarano: Bejarano is the reigning Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year, and should thrive with more minutes this season. Last season he averaged 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while playing 22 minutes a game. He typically plays somewhat like a small forward and uses his athleticism and vision to rebound over taller opponents. With more playing time and a green light to shoot the ball, he should improve on his 31% three point shooting from last season and develop into a formidable scoring threat.
JJ Avila: Avila hopes to fill a void left by the departure of Greg Smith and Pierce Hornung. His 6' 7" and 246 pound frame makes him the largest player by weight and third tallest on the roster. With Eustachy's coaching, he should be a formidable threat on the glass and will play a big role on the defensive end of the court. He brings a well developed offensive game that includes a consistent three point and mid-range shot, as well as an ability to get to the rim. He originally played for the Naval Academy and was named Patriot League rookie of the year before leaving the program after the 2011-2012 season. He has not played collegiate basketball for a year, so it will be interesting to see if there is any rust to begin the season, but he has the potential to be a standout player for the Rams.
The Rams have a favorable Non-Conference slate with only two away games and their toughest opponent, Colorado, at home. With nine straight home games before the conference opener against San Diego State, this young squad will have time to work out the kinks and start conference play on the right foot. With the number of returning players at UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico, and Boise State, it will be difficult for the Rams to replicate their 2nd place finish from last season, but they will provide a tough matchup in Moby Arena and win some games they shouldn't.
There is no doubt expectations are high for Colorado State after their performance in the Mountain West and NCAA Tournament last year, but losing five seniors is tough, especially with the amount of production they take with them. Larry Eustachy always fields a team that can defend and rebound well which will keep them in just about every game on their schedule. They won't contend for a Mountain West championship, but they certainly have the ability to make three straight NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in school history.
How would you define a successful second year for Larry Eustachy? Let us know in the comments.