Despite the Rams’ six wins this season, CSU men’s basketball head coach Larry Eustachy often mentioned after the games, “Well, I really didn’t know if we could beat this team tonight.”
No one knew what to expect from a team that lost five senior starters and 77 percent of their scoring from a season ago. However, with the emergence of junior guards Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano as key starters, as well as a breakout early season performance by junior forward JJ Avila, this year’s Rams team sits at 6-2 after an impressive 85-83 win over New Mexico State on Saturday afternoon.
Following the latest win, Eustachy praised the recruiting efforts of assistant coaches Ross Hodge and Leonard Perry and their ability to piece a successful team together.
“I told Leonard and Ross how proud I am of them and how great of a job they’ve done,” Eustachy said. “They found JJ somewhere along the US-Mexico border and found Jon Octeus under a rock in Illinois, so this is a pretty fun group.”
After being manhandled 93-61 by No. 10 Gonzaga three weeks ago, Eustachy’s young squad has won five of their last six including a 4-0 record in their own tournament, the Colorado State Challenge. Leading that charge has been Avila, a 6-foot-7 transfer by way of the US Naval Academy. Through eight games, Avila leads CSU with 19 points per game, is second on the team in rebounds per game at 5.8, and has shot an impressive 46 of 52 from the free throw line. While he did average 13.7 points a game in two years for the Midshipmen, no one could have expected Avila to have this big of an impact only six months removed from playing at the community rec center in his hometown of McAllen, Texas as he took a redshirt year away from competitive basketball.
Along with Avila’s outstanding early performance, CSU’s four returning players from last season have stepped into key roles to lead this inexperienced team.
Guards Jon Octeus and Joe De Ciman, along with forward Gerson Santo, have provided instant offensive production as CSU’s second, fourth and fifth leading scorers respectively. One of the biggest expected hits was on the glass, where the Rams led the country last season in rebounding buoyed by All-Mountain West selections Pierce Hornung and Colton Iverson.
This won’t be a problem if Daniel Bejarano has anything to say about it.
After averaging 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds as the first player off the bench last season, the junior from Phoenix stepped into a bigger scoring role while also leading the team in rebounds per game at 8.6. There was no better example of Bejarano’s impact on the boards than Saturday, where the Rams were undersized at almost every position but won the rebounding battle 45-39 led by Bejarano with a game-high 15.
“People are always counting us out. They say we aren’t the same team that we were last year,” Bejarano said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re a small team or not, we’re going to rebound. That’s how Coach expects us to play and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
As the Rams head into likely the biggest game of their non-conference schedule against Colorado on Tuesday, there was no surprise at the words that came out of Eustachy’s mouth when asked about what he expects to see from his young team against their bitter rivals.
“This is a big game, it really is. Are we ready for this yet…I don’t know,” Eustachy said. “I wasn’t sure if we were ready to beat a team like New Mexico State. This is going to be a great environment and they all know what this game means.”
Men’s Basketball beat reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @kpopecollegian.
Breakout: Rams Leaders
JJ Avila, 19.0
Jon Octeu,s 13.9
Daniel Bejarano, 13.6
Daniel Bejarano, 8.6
JJ Avila, 5.8
Joc Octeus, 4.5
JJ Avila, 3.8
Jon Octeus, 3.3
Daniel Bejarano, 2.6