Turn on any European-league basketball game, and you’ll see a brand of basketball that is substantially different than what you see in the United States.
Players are generally far more fundamentally skilled, less selfish and more versatile than what you’ll see of American-born players.
Which is exactly why Colorado State women’s basketball head coach Ryun Williams and his staff began targeting overseas players four years ago. He needed a group that could turn a mediocre program around quickly, without having to load his team full of junior college and Division I transfers. So Williams sent assistant coach Tim Moser, who had recruited former CSU standout Gritt Ryder to Alaska-Anchorage, off to Western Europe in search of a handful of ready-to-play prospects.
Because of Ryder’s connections in Denmark, CSU was able to land Emilie Hesseldal. While recruiting Hesseldal, Moser and Williams stumbled upon a pair of Swedish standouts, Elin Gustavsson and Ellen Nystrom.
All of the sudden, the Rams had a lineup ready to compete for a Mountain West championship after winning just 11 games the season before.
The result? Two outright Mountain West regular-season championships with the chance at a third Tuesday night, a feat never accomplished in the league’s 16-year history. The 25th-ranked Rams are just two games away from a perfect Mountain West season, with only a one-point loss to Penn separating them from an undefeated regular season so far. The group looks to fit seamlessly together, like they’ve been playing together for 10 years instead of just two or three.
So how do they do it?
Similar to European club team, the Rams don’t have a single dominant scorer, relying more on a balanced attack that features four players averaging double-figure scoring and 10 players who average between three and 12 points per game. CSU assists on 57 percent of its baskets, and the Rams’ assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.27 ranks them in the top 15 nationally.
Don’t forget about defense, though, where CSU ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense, the only team in Division I to do that besides three-time defending national champion UConn.
CSU is also able to create all kinds of matchup issues for its opponents, with the 5-foot-11-inch Nystrom, the 6-foot-2-inch Gustavsson and the 6-foot-3-inch Hesseldal all able to run the point guard spot in CSU’s offense. Defensively, players are nearly interchangeable, allowing the Rams to switch ball screens and handoffs with ease, and also allowing them to run multiple defenders at their opponent’s best players.
Though all the work hasn’t been done solely by foreign players, as Williams pointed out earlier this week, their influence is quite obvious.
“We have nine of them (foreign players), so they’ve had a large influence on the style in which we play, which is in part why we brought them in,” Williams said. “But (Hannah) Tvrdy is that type of player, Jamie (Patrick) is that type of player, so they fit nicely with what we want to do here.”
Complementing Williams’ array of foreign talent are three transfers: Tvrdy, Patrick and Keyora Wharry. All have bought into Williams’ system, sacrificing their own statistics for the benefit of the team. They make up a big part of the talent and the depth that this CSU team showcases on a nightly basis, something they lacked last year despite winning 23 games and finishing 15-3 in the Mountain West.
“Last year was a great team, but this year we definitely played a little differently,” Patrick said. “There’s so many of us that can play, not even just the five starters. The bench is so deep, which makes us such a strong team, and it’s really hard for teams to guard us.”
Another noticeable difference from this group is their chemistry, something they credit to Williams, but also to their European trip this past summer, where the team traveled to Norway, Denmark and Sweden over a 12-day period.
The Rams got to play basketball, sure, but also got to experience a completely new part of the world in the process. For CSU’s nine foreign players, the trip gave them an opportunity to see their families and also to show their teammates a little bit of their life outside of basketball. For the American-born players, it was a chance to finally put a picture with all of the places and things their European teammates had been telling them about.
“We always talk about how back home we do things like this and we eat this, and now our teammates could actually experience it,” Nystrom added. “Even for me, going back home and showing my team that I play for here to everyone at home was just an amazing experience.”
When asked if that trip and this team’s chemistry in particular played a big role in the group’s success this season, Patrick, Nystrom and Gustavsson didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“Our chemistry is so, so good, and I think that goes all the way back to the Europe trip that we did,” Gustavsson added. “That really made us come together and I feel like with good chemistry, you can build on things like defense, offense, etc. Most teams have to work on that during the season, but we already have that. Last year and the year before, I think the chemistry is what we were missing. Yeah, we won the regular-season titles, but we didn’t have what we have right now.”
Now, all that stands in the way of Colorado State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than a decade are two more regular-season games, and the Mountain West tournament, a place the Rams have stumbled in the past two seasons. More so than in the past, this team has “locked in” on each opponent, according to Williams, and he really hasn’t had to do much to keep this team focused on the prize despite its dominant run.
But that hasn’t stopped Williams, always the razor-sharp, focused head coach, from stepping back a bit to realize what his team has done.
“I think sometimes as coaches, and I’m really bad at this, but we need to just step back and appreciate what we’re putting out there and what these kids are doing, and probably say ‘thank you’ a little bit more,” Williams said. “These kids, what they have done for CSU and our basketball program in general, I just have to say a huge ‘thank you’ to them for their efforts. They don’t come along all that often, and when they do, as coaches we need to enjoy it. … I think when you’re sitting around your fire pit in July at 10:30 at night, you can look back at this and it almost brings you to tears sometimes.”
“…But it’s not July yet. So we’re still going to bark at them and coach the heck out of them because we’ve still got a lot of basketball to play.”
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.