Two and a half years ago, Larry Eustachy inherited one of the best teams the Colorado State men’s basketball program has fielded in its history. The 2012-13 Rams had five experience seniors, an NBA draft pick in Colton Iverson and a savvy supporting cast around him.
What they did lack, however, was a great defense.
Under former head coach Tim Miles, who left for Nebraska in May 2012, CSU was known for its offensive talent, but not for a tenacious defense.
Eustachy’s first year at Colorado State was a great one, nonetheless, with the Rams advancing to the third round of the NCAA tournament before falling to eventual champion Louisville, whose supreme athleticism and frenetic full-court press gave the Rams fits.
And then there was last season.
After losing its top five players, CSU was expected to be a more athletic, defensive-minded team led by players like Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano. However, what the Rams couldn’t have expected is the burden of minutes that those two players – along with forward JJ Avila – endured. As Eustachy lamented time and time again, CSU simply didn’t have the man power to play the type of smothering defense that the veteran head coach’s teams have been notorious for.
The result: CSU finished 16-16, allowing opponents to shoot 44.2 percent from the field while ranking No. 136 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 162 in scoring defense.
Now fast forward to the Rams’ 2014-15 season opener Saturday night against Montana. Colorado State opened the game on a 19-4 run, forced 13 turnovers and held the Grizzlies to just 40 percent shooting for the night.
While it is a very small sample size, it seems as though Eustachy’s third team at CSU has finally bought in to his defense-first philosophy.
“We just came out and we were more physical and more determined, and you guys obviously saw the score,” senior guard Daniel Bejarano said of the Rams’ suffocating defense to start the game. “We’re buying into what Coach (Eustachy) is saying, but we’ve just got to be consistent with our defense.”
“My biggest thing is knowing that I guy can guard guys out on the perimeter,” senior forward Stanton Kidd added. “I’m a little bit slower than most of the people (I’m guarding), so it’s nice to know I’ve got the help on the baseline and that’s where I can try to force them.”
Though the Rams’ vastly improved offense stole the show Saturday, it was their defense and rebounding, where they outrebounded the Griz 39-26, which showed the potential of just how good this team could be.
As Eustachy has reminded his team, there will be nights when the ball simply won’t go in the basket. There are also sure to be some miscues offensively for a team who will play five newcomers in its regular rotation.
However, despite whatever struggles they may have on the offensive end, this Colorado State team, unlike many of its predecessors, should be able to rely on its length, athleticism and defensive prowess to keep itself in games when they do happen to have an off shooting night.
Two years ago, Colorado State basketball saw one of its best teams in school history, and if the Rams continue to play the way they did Saturday night, they might have another one on their hands.
The Pope has spoken.
Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.