Pope: Avila-less Colorado State misses its ‘glue guy’

Keegan Pope

Keegan Pope
Keegan Pope

Normally, the “glue guy” on a basketball team isn’t the most talented player, nor the most athletic. He likely doesn’t possess the best skill set and he probably won’t be the guy an opposing coach designs a defensive game plan around.

Think Dennis Rodman from the 90s Bulls. Or Derek Fisher from the early 2000s Los Angeles Lakers. Or more recently, and closer to home, former Colorado State forward Pierce Hornung.

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They don’t shock with you with their skill or athleticism, but there the guy that makes it all go — the grease that helps the engine.

Not J.J. Avila.

While his quickness or vertical leap won’t leave you in awe, his impact to the Colorado State team resembles that of a “glue” player, while his statistics are those of a star. But his impact, or lack thereof due to an injury that kept him out of Friday night’s game, was never felt more by CSU than in the Rams’ 56-43 loss to San Diego State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. Sure, Avila scored 29 points in a home win over the Aztecs earlier this year and 24 in a road loss that was much closer than this game ever felt. But his presence reaches much farther than that.

It’s his ability to take on the other team’s best defender and make said defender looking like he’s standing in quicksand.

It’s his calming presence on the court, and his exceptional awareness of time, situation and momentum. He knows when to attack and when to stand pat.

But mostly, it’s his ability to act as an extension of the CSU coaching staff on the floor. Usually that job falls to a point guard, but without one in the starting lineup that plays consistent minutes, that task has been rightfully handed to Avila.

He senses when is the right time to encourage, and rarely ever loses his cool with a teammate. Despite being probably the second-best player in the Mountain West this season, Avila is your consummate glue guy. Just ask CSU head coach Larry Eustachy.

“I didn’t say a word at halftime,” CSU’s veteran coach said after the team’s 71-59 win over Fresno State Thursday night. “Only a couple words, but I had him talk to the team and coach them. I said, ‘Then I want you on the bench. You can sit next to me or where you feel comfortable but I want you coaching this game.’”

“… Like I say, one of those priceless moments. Yet you never know until you’re put in it. Unfortunately, it was an adverse situation, but that’s when you find out the most about a guy and his teammates.”

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After injuring his ankle with 6:40 to go in the first half against the Bulldogs, Avila was right there on the bench alongside Eustachy, cheering and coaching as the Rams hung on to win without him for the third time this year. They could survive Fresno State. But they couldn’t do it against a team like SDSU.

Against the Aztecs, CSU’s offense sputtered, and as SDSU forward Winston Shepard said, “There was a couple times that a couple of us just got in the lane and the seas parted. … (They’re) a whole different team.  They’re not even the same team without him.  That’s no disrespect to anybody on the team.  That guy’s all-conference, so it makes a big difference.”

CSU shot just 32 percent Friday night against the Aztecs, and came away with just 18 points in the paint and only six off of ten offensive rebounds. Tiel Daniels did his best against a long SDSU front line, but Avila’s craftiness around the basket and tenacious offensive rebounding was sorely missed. For most of the night, CSU was unable to find open looks, and more often than not it ended with a forced shot over an Aztec defender. CSU also finished with just a single steal, only forced seven turnovers and allowed exactly half of SDSU’s to come from inside the paint.

As much as Avila coached from the sidelines and provided encouragement for his teammates, it was ultimately his absence that led CSU to its downfall.

“If you take J.J. O’Brien off our team, how would we be?” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “We’d be different, a lot different.  The ball goes through J.J. a lot.  The ball goes through their J.J. a lot. He creates so many problems for you at both ends of the floor.  So there’s no question that it was a huge difference in the game.”

As the Rams await a possible berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament, they must hope that Avila’s injured right ankle heals properly if they hope to have any shot of advancing past their first game.

Otherwise, they might just fall apart completely without their glue.

Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.