There’s no 27-game home winning streak on the line, no national rankings, no conference championship.
Still, Saturday night’s home tilt against New Mexico at 2 p.m. may be the biggest game of the year for the Colorado State men’s basketball team. While this year’s matchup may not carry the same amount of hype as last season’s, you can bet this game means as much or more to Larry Eustachy’s young team. After close losses to No. 21 Colorado, No. 7 San Diego State, and this same New Mexico squad on the road on Jan. 4, a win Saturday may be just the thing to finally get the Rams over the hump against a top-50 opponent and propel them into the home stretch of Mountain West play.
But like anything worth having, a win against the Lobos won’t be easy. Despite a then career-high 25 points from junior guard Daniel Bejarano, the Rams simply didn’t have enough firepower to match the Lobos three-headed monster of Cameron Bairstow (29 points, 14 rebounds), Kendall Williams (22 points), and Alex Kirk (14 points, 11 rebounds) in an 80-73 defeat at The Pit. While all three of those players will be in action Saturday night, the key to a Rams’ victory likely lies on the back of junior forward JJ Avila.
In their first meeting, Avila played through the pain of a sprained lower back and gave the Rams 14 points in just 28 minutes of action. Even though his offense didn’t suffer too much, Avila’s ability to defend and rebound did. Hobbled by bouts of shooting pain into his legs and lower back, Avila was unable to bend into a defensive stance and it showed by Bairstow and Kirk’s ability to push him around on the block. The Rams’ leading scorer is almost back to 100 percent because of rehabilitation and a bit of time off this week, something teammate Jon Octeus believes is crucial if they are going to pull off the upset.
“It’s huge to have him back and ready to go,” Octeus said. “When you pull the block out of your Legos, the whole thing isn’t as strong. It’s the same way with our team, JJ is a huge piece for us and we’re obviously a much better team when he’s on the court.”
Along with healthy Avila, the Rams will have the services of junior guard Dwight Smith who played only three minutes in the first meeting due to a knee injury as well as a healthy Bejarano who has been fighting an eye infection for more than three weeks. Despite virtually playing with one eye, Bejarano has been nothing short of magnificent in Mountain West play. The junior guard chipped in 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals in six conference games so far.
With Bejarano and Avila, who has been averaging 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in conference play, the Rams have one of the best inside-outside combinations in entire conference only rivaled by the three-headed monster in Albuquerque.
“When these guys were hurt, we really struggled,” Head Coach Larry Eustachy said. “Those two are priceless for us and we really count on both of them because if one of them has an off night it’ll be tough to beat some of the better teams in this league.”
But for the Rams to have a chance Saturday night it will be up to Avila, along with centers Gerson Santo and Marcus Holt, to limit easy post touches for Bairstow and Kirk while keeping them off the offensive glass to limit second-chance points. Those things are easier said than done against likely the best one-two frontcourt combination in the country but strong performances from the Rams only three players taller than 6’4 will be vital.
“We just really have to play within our defensive principles,” Avila said. “We’ve got to front the post, keep them out of the paint, and really just force them to shoot over us instead of letting them have the easy looks they did the first time.”
While the Rams have lost three games straight to the Lobos, including last year’s 91-82 home loss that ended CSU’s school record 27-game home winning streak, players and coaches alike don’t see this as a revenge game, but instead as just another opportunity.
“Coach Eustachy always talks about opportunities and as we get closer to the end of the season we only have so many opportunities left,” Octeus said. “We’re just focused on Saturday and getting a much needed win.”
Saturday’s “White Out” game tips off at 2 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN3.com as well as ESPN 105.5 FM. Student tickets are available at the McGraw Center Ticket Office.
Men’s Basketball Beat Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.