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Words From the Pope: CSU basketball teams finding success in creative ways

Keegan Pope
Keegan Pope

Three years ago, Ryun Williams and Larry Eustachy walked into very different programs when they accepted the head basketball coaching positions at Colorado State University.

Williams, an up-and-coming coach on his way to Fort Collins from South Dakota, inherited a squad depleted by transfers that hadn’t seen a winning season since 2004-05.

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Eustachy, who was looking for a school to call his permanent home after coaching at Utah State, Iowa State and Southern Mississippi over the past 15 years, came into a program on the rise which had just played in its first NCAA Tournament game in nearly a decade and returned five senior starters.

One seemed to have a huge rebuilding project in front of him, while the other was handed the keys to an expensive sports car and expected not to crash it.

Williams’ first team went 11-19, including three three-plus game losing streaks. Eustachy’s first group went 26-9, setting the school record for most wins in a single season, and beat Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual national champion Louisville. The two programs seemed to be complete opposites of each other, like their coaches.

But the duo did have something in common. They knew to win in the Mountain West — at a school like Colorado State that hasn’t been known for basketball excellence recently — they would have to get creative.

So instead of taking the traditional approach by chasing high school players around the summer recruiting circuit, Eustachy did what he has always done. He found players — like Jon Octeus and Gian Clavell — who were lightly recruited, if at all, by bigger schools. He went after players who were looking to leave a school they had originally signed with, but didn’t end up finding a home at — like Daniel Bejarano, J.J. Avila and Fred Richardson III. And finally, he found players the bigger schools had missed who were looking for a shot to play against better competition — like John Gillon, Tiel Daniels and Stanton Kidd.

A motley crew, some might say, of players other schools didn’t want, who had one thing in common — a chip on their shoulder.

But it took time for Eustachy’s group to take shape, and last season the Rams suffered some growing pains. With Daniels, Kidd and Gillon all sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules, Bejarano, Octeus and Avila willed CSU to a 16-16 overall — the team’s first non-winning season since 2009-10.

On the women’s side, Williams took a page out of Eustachy’s book, but scribbled out a few things and rewrote a chapter or two. Instead of going after Division I transfers, Williams sent assistant coach Tim Moser overseas to recruit foreign players, who generally come with a better set of basketball fundamentals and understanding of the game than U.S.-born players. Along with junior college transfers A.J. Newton, Gritt Ryder and Victoria Wells, CSU added an international flair to the program, adding four players from Norway, Denmark and Sweden in that recruiting cycle.

After suffering its own growing pains during Williams’ first season, the Rams went 25-8 in 2013-14, winning the Mountain West title on the backs of foreign-born players Ellen Nystrom, Elin Gustavsson and Emilie Hesseldal, along with transfers Newton and Ryder.

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However, there may be no better example of the success of Williams and Eustachy’s creativity than this season.

The men’s team, which receives nearly 87 percent of its scoring from players who didn’t have CSU as their first destination, is 26-5, and likely a win against Fresno State next Thursday away from making it back to the NCAA Tournament. Record-wise, this group will finish with the best winning percentage in school history, and has a chance to finish with the most wins in school history should they knock off the Bulldogs in Las Vegas.

The women’s team, a year after falling one game short of the NCAA Tournament, sits at 23-6 and holds the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West tournament beginning Monday in Las Vegas. Returning four starters from last season’s team, Williams followed the motto, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” He added a couple of foreign players, along with junior college transfers Keyora Wharry and Jamie Patrick, who have made an immediate impact this year. Just three games sit between CSU and their first March Madness appearance in more than a decade.

The two coaches have also added a handful of prep players over the past three seasons, intermixing them with the transfers and foreign players in an attempt to raise the school’s profile among high school players. Both will admit, though, if you want immediate results, you must stray away from the traditional way of building a program and find new ways to do it.

That strategy seems to be working pretty well.

The Pope has spoken.

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

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