CSU men’s basketball focused on South Dakota State matchup in NIT

Emmett McCarthy

The NCAA Tournament snub is in the past. The National Invitation Tournament still lies ahead.

All the CSU men’s basketball team can do now is make the doubters into believers, and the first step in the process comes Wednesday at 8:05 p.m. when the Rams host South Dakota State (23-10, 12-4 Summit League) in the opening round of the NIT at Moby Arena.

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“This is life on life’s terms, man,” CSU head coach Larry Eustachy said. “I’ve been knocked down. It’s a matter of whether you get up or not, so it’s a great test.”

Its not the postseason the Rams hoped to be playing in with a 27-6 record, but at this point, it’s the only option.

“I think it’s a chance to play more basketball,” Eustachy said. “It’s a chance to play through adversity, which is what we’ve taught since these guys have been here.”

CSU seniors J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano became quite familiar with facing adversity on the court last year, when they carried an undermanned Rams team to a 16-16 record.

It’s a different challenge now, though. It’s a matter of motivation.

Following the letdown of being left out of the big dance, top seeds have often come out flat or sleep-walked through the NIT. In the last six years, a No.1 seed has won the tournament just once (Minnesota in 2014).

“We’re all over it,” Avila said of the snub. “It is what it is. We’re focusing on South Dakota State and trying to win this championship.”

The senior forward also quelled any notion that he could have helped the Rams in the Mountain West tournament had Eustachy chose not to rest him in the semifinals against San Diego State, saying that he could not have been very effective.

Avila said the ankle he sprained Thursday in the quarterfinals against Fresno State is still a little swollen, but that he will be good to go Wednesday. He tried to look on the bright side of playing in the NIT.

“I’ve got three more home games,” Avila said. “I never thought I would play in Moby again.”

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The first of those game will come against the Summit League regular season champions. The Jackrabbits love to let it fly from 3-point range, and their roster features three double-digit scorers, including a Wisconsin transfer with tournament experience in junior guard George Marshall.

“Their starting five, they’re solid,” Tiel Daniels said. “They’ve got real balanced scoring. We have just got to focus on the defensive end. On the offensive end, just play our game. The good thing for us is we play at home. We go to the gym and our shooters are used to the rim.”

Something the Rams won’t be used to though are the new rules the NIT will experiment with. The tournament will use a shortened shot clock (30 seconds rather than 35) and an expanded restricted area under the hoop (four feet rather than three).

The shorter clock will not be an issue for Bejarano, who said he would actually prefer a 24-second shot clock. The Rams practiced with the new rules and markings Tuesday.

“We won’t have any problem with the shot clock,” Eustachy said with a laugh. “Unless its 10 seconds, we shouldn’t have a problem with it.”

The team was surprisingly upbeat after practice on Monday. The sting is still there, but the Rams seem to realize that there is nothing they can do about it, except play ball.

“We’ll be ready,” Daniels said. “Obviously, we’re very disappointed, but we can’t sit around and mope and feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to pick ourselves up and make the best out of the situation that we got. Next opponent we got is South Dakota State so we have got to leave it all on the floor.”

Juniors like Daniels understand that even though its not the ideal tournament, it is still do-or-die for the seniors. They deserve to be sent off the right way, so the urgency has never been greater.

CSU is set to tip off against South Dakota State at 8:05 p.m. Wednesday at Moby Arena. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU. If the Rams win, they will meet the winner of No.4 Saint Mary’s vs. No.5 Vanderbilt.

Collegian Sports Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @emccarthy22.