Colorado State, coming off a 27-7 season and an NIT bid last year, opens its 2015 season Saturday against CSU-Pueblo at Moby Arena. The Rams return just two starters, but bring back key reserves Gian Clavell and John Gillon, along with a host of talented young players and two junior college transfers. CSU was projected seventh in the Mountain West preseason poll, with San Diego State and Boise State taking the top two spots in the rankings.
The women’s team, who lost in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament after winning its second-consecutive regular season title, will look to replace league player of the year Gritt Ryder and fellow guard AJ Newton, who have both since graduated. The Rams were again selected to win the Mountain West in the preseason poll, and will be led by standout Swedes Elin Gustavsson and Ellen Nystrom.
The Rams’ two teams open the season in very different positions, but here are the five storylines to watch this season.
The absence of Avila
The losses of Stanton Kidd and Daniel Bejarano will surely hurt CSU, but trying to replace the production of JJ Avila will be nearly impossible. Had it not been for Derrick Marks, Avila likely would’ve been the Mountain West Player of the Year in 2015. Not only are his numbers difficult to replicate, but so is his clutch gene. Many people remember Bejarano’s late-game heroics, but Avila was the difference between a handful of wins and losses over the past two years. Junior college forward Emmanuel Omogbo will slide into Avila’s spot in the starting lineup, and he, Kimani Jackson and Tiel Daniels will look to make up the production that Avila left behind.
Can Gillon become a consistent force?
At Mountain West media days, CSU head coach Larry Eustachy said his point guard, John Gillon, was the best player at his position in the league. When Gillon is on, that’s a pretty hard statement to argue with. He may be the only one in the league who is quicker with the ball in his hands, and in the open court, he is nearly unguardable, as you can see in the video below. The crux with Gillon has always been his ability to do it on a regular basis, though.
There were games last season where he was the best player on the floor, and there were others where he barely made an impact. That will have to change this season is CSU is to have any measure of success. With the aforementioned losses, CSU will be looking scorers to step up in the starting lineup, and that’s exactly what Gillon has the opportunity to do.
Outside of CSU’s top seven players, the rest of the squad is a relative unknown. Fred Richardson III and Antwan Scott will provide some much-needed depth off of the bench, but after that, the questions begin. Redshirt freshmen J.D. Paige and Toby Van Ry return after redshirting last season, and joining them are a trio of true freshmen and Jackson. Eustachy is known for going with a relatively short bench, but he’ll need at least one or two of those six players to contribute meaningful minutes. Look for Jackson and Paige to play early on, but don’t be surprised if Nixon makes a push for playing time. (Here are a few of Jackson’s high school highlights.)
There might not have been a better all-around player than Gritt Ryder in the league last season, which is exactly why she was named MW Player of the Year. Her scoring numbers weren’t off-the-charts by any means, but Ryder did a little bit of everything last year when CSU needed her. Head coach Ryun Williams is tasked with replacing her this year, and so far it looks like it will be done by committee. Nebraska transfer Hannah Tvrdy should compete for the starting spot, but don’t be surprised to see Nystrom and Wharry running the point for long stretches because of their versatility. It will take time for the Rams to adjust without Ryder, who is now a graduate assistant with the program, but you can guarantee she’ll help to groom her replacement all season.
The women’s team has the chance to do what no other team in Mountain West history has done and win three regular season league titles in a row. But, they’ll face a stiff challenge with New Mexico and Boise State nipping at their heels. The Broncos are the defending Mountain West tournament champions, and the Lobos are the runners-up. They’ll have to rely heavily Gustavsson, Nystrom and Keyora Wharry to get them through a brutal Mountain West schedule. Expect a dogfight until the final week of the season.
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.