Adversity builds character. The Colorado State basketball team has learned this the hard way.
After an 18-win season a year ago ended with a loss in the Mountain West semifinals, Colorado State was slated to finish seventh in the conference in the 2016-17 season.
Popular perception was that the Rams were facing an uphill battle this season.
After all, CSU graduated three starters in Joe De Ciman, Tiel Daniels, and Antwan Scott from last season. Plus, John Gillon, the reigning ACC player of the week, transferred to Syracuse to finish out his collegiate career. These four players accounted for over half of the Rams scoring a year ago.
Colorado State received another obstacle when Gian Clavell was suspended for the opening nine games of the 2016-17 season due to a domestic dispute with an ex-girlfriend. In addition to Clavell’s University imposed suspension, key role players in Che Bob, Devocio Butler and Kimani Jackson were named academically ineligible early in conference play.
“We have more guys in street clothes than in regular uniforms for whatever reason,” head coach Larry Eustachy said.
Given these obstacles, Colorado State gave justice to their preseason ranking to finish seventh in the conference.
Facing the adversity, a seventh-place finish suddenly seemed overly optimistic. Especially since CSU has had to grind out the majority of their conference slate with only seven players.
“We weren’t that worried about it,” senior forward Emmanuel Omogbo said. “We were just worried about what was going on in our locker room. We were worried about what’s going on in everyone’s head. Because if we are focused and ready to go we can take off from there. It doesn’t matter what the media is saying. We are built for this.”
The Rams achieved 18 wins last season with a roster that was nine players deep almost every game. Their depth was similar during a 27-win campaign two years ago and even during a subpar 16-win season in 2013.
Though having more than seven players contribute significant minutes is only fairly common, literally having two options off the bench is unheard of for most teams, and especially for the Rams. But still, they never batted an eye.
“It bothered me because I lost my teammates,” Clavell said. “But it also didn’t bother me because I knew the seven that were playing were great. It didn’t phase me at all.”
Colorado State’s 16-9 (8-4 Mountain West) record puts them on pace to eclipse its 18-win season from a season ago. The Rams currently sit two games better overall and also in Mountain West play than they were through 25 games in 2015-16.
“It’s really sweet man,” Omogbo said. “It shows that we worked with the seven players that are here. It’s not like we have seven scrubs, we have seven real players.”
Playing with seven players has its downsides, such as the plethora of minutes for players, but while those minutes may become taxing over the course of a season, they also provide experience to players whom otherwise would not get it.
“Prentiss (Nixon), Nico (Carvacho), and J.D. (Paige) will get experience from this a lot because they get to play through their mistakes in games more,” Omogbo said. “They’re going to be experienced for next year. For me and Gian playing through our mistakes helps us for the next level.”
Eustachy has had no choice but to significantly limit Clavell, Omogbo, Paige, and Nixon’s bench time. Since Bob, Butler and Jackson all officially were named ineligible, before playing New Mexico on Jan. 14, Clavell has averaged 38 minutes per game. Similarly, Nixon has played 35.6 minutes per contest, Omogbo averaged 33 minutes, and Paige has been on the floor 32.6 minutes per game.
“We worked hard in the summer on our body and agility,” Omogbo said. “Hard work pays off, and that’s what’s happening right now.”
All four have had to play in situations where they normally would be benched. All four have also had some of their best games of the season during this stretch.
Paige notched a career-high in made field goals against Boise State on Jan. 31 in a 20 point effort. Omogbo has earned a double-double in all but two of the eight contests since the three-player suspension. Clavell scored a career-high 37 points in a victory against San Diego State on Jan. 28. Nixon, who averaged 4.8 points per game last season, has scored in double figures in seven of the Rams eight contests since the roster shrinkage.
Redshirt freshman Nico Carvacho, along with Anthony Bonner and Braden Koelliker off the bench, have had to step up as well. Carvacho has become an everyday starter despite his inexperience and is contributing over 20 minutes per game.
Bonner and Koelliker have had to take much larger roles than they had to begin the season. While this may have been unexpected, both have been up to the task.
“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but as time went on I learned my role,” Koelliker said. “It’s been a huge confidence booster for me just to see that we are seven guys coming together. We are all we have, and we have to be a band of brothers, and we have to look out for each other on the court. It’s been awesome to be in this situation.”
It has been a challenge, but with 26 years as a head coach under his belt, Eustachy knows a group capable of handling heavy minutes when he sees one.
“Gian can play 40 minutes, Prentiss can play 40 minutes, we know we have guys who can log all 40,” Eustachy said.
Collegian sports reporter Eddie Herz can be reached by firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eddie_Herz