In what has been a predominantly down year for Mountain West men’s basketball, one of the most improved and in a way impressive teams has been San Jose State. Now the Spartans are by no means a conference contender, but they are competitive, something they couldn’t say during the past two years when they won just one conference game.
The Spartans were nearly able to upset CSU two weeks ago in San Jose, but late-game heroics from redshirt freshman Jeremiah Paige sent the game into overtime, where CSU survived 85-84. The Spartans knocked off Wyoming Jan. 13 to win their first conference game in nearly two calendar years, and were competitive with Fresno State before falling 81-74.
Unlike previous seasons, San Jose State isn’t a pushover team any more, and CSU nearly found out the hard way.
The Rams, who sit at 11-8 overall and 3-3 in the Mountain West, are in the midst of a critical three-game stretch against three of the weaker teams in the league — Air Force, San Jose State and Wyoming. CSU beat Air Force in an emotional game last Wednesday, and will face Wyoming Saturday in Laramie, in what should be another exciting edition of the Border War.
But before they get there, CSU faces the Spartans in an important home game, one that the Rams must win to avoid the Mountain West’s play-in games in March.
1) Defense, defense, defense
CSU has to get back to its defensive roots, something they struggled mightily with in the previous meeting, allowing the Spartans to shoot 47.5 percent from the field while racking up their fourth-highest point total of the season. That means stopping the trio of Princeton Onwas, Ryan Welage and Frank Rogers, all of whom average double-digit scoring this season. Onwas had a field day in the first game, scoring a game-high 24 points, and unless they can slow down the Spartans’ three-headed attack, CSU could be in for another long game defensively.
2) Block out the distractions
Wednesday will mark the first CSU home game since the passing of Emmanuel Omogbo’s mother, father and twin niece and nephew in a Maryland house fire. Omogbo gutted out 10 minutes in the Rams’ win over Air Force, but he was visibly shaken by the news he had found out just a day earlier. He is expected to play after returning to Fort Collins Tuesday, and it is not known if he will retake his place in the starting lineup. There will be a lot of emotion for Omogbo, the team and the fans in the building, something that can either help or hurt the Rams. In a situation like this, focus and attention to the game are easier said than done, but the Rams will have to be on their A-game, and losing this one would really, really hurt.
On the women’s side, the 16-1 Rams, who are receiving eight votes in this week’s top-25 poll, travel out to San Jose for a rematch with an always-dangerous Spartans team. CSU handled the Spartans two weeks ago, holding them to a season-low 54 points en route to a 22-point blowout victory. Defense has been CSU’s calling card this season, and to beat the Spartans again, it’ll be no different.
3) CSU must play its own game
The Spartan women’s team loves to play an up-and-down tempo, throwing the ball all over the court, and turning it over quite a bit in the process. But their goal is exactly that — to speed the other team up. They shoot a lot, and they shoot very, very early in the shot clock. If CSU gets into a three-point shooting match with SJSU, the Rams might find themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard, as they did last season in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals.
As long as the Rams play their game offensively — in particular, having a balanced game plan — and get out on San Jose State shooters, they should be able to continue the second-best start to a season in school history.
Collegian Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.