Herz: Paige is Colorado State’s x-factor for NCAA tournament hopes

Eddie Herz

If it were a normal year for Mountain West basketball, Colorado State’s record would appear to put them on the bubble with a decent chance at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

However, it’s not a normal year for the Mountain West. In fact, the 2016-17 season has been a particularly below-average season for the conference.

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The Mountain West sent three teams to the NCAA tournament in the 2014-15 season. Similarly, two teams from the Mountain West received a March Madness invitation after the 2013-14 season.

At one point, it seemed that every team in the Mountain West that was somewhat qualified to compete in the NCAA tournament was given the opportunity to do so. For example, in the 2012-13 season, the top five teams in the Mountain West all made the NCAA tournament. Four teams from the Mountain West also competed in March Madness the season before that.

In any of the four seasons previously mentioned, CSU’s 19-9 (11-4 Mountain West) record would at least earn some consideration from the selection committee. Nevertheless, it seems the only team from the Mountain West that will crack the field of 68 in 2017 will be the team that wins the Mountain West Tournament.

Fresno State was the only team to receive an NCAA tournament bid last season. At first this seemed like an outlier compared to previous seasons, but this season has played out dangerously similar to the 2015-16 season.

Colorado State’s hopes

The Rams have been carried into a first place tie in the Mountain West by the senior duo of Emmanuel Omogbo and Gian Clavell.

Clavell’s 18.9 points per game lead CSU in scoring. The Puerto Rico native has also scored an average of 20.9 points per game in Mountain West contests. This mark is tied for the best in the conference with New Mexico’s Elijah Brown.

Omogbo has earned 11 double-doubles in Mountain west play this season, 16 total, and sits one more performance shy of the conference record for double-doubles in a season. The senior forward has averaged 14.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per game this season. Omogbo ranks seventh in scoring and first in rebounds in Mountain West contests.

While the duo has done an exceptional job at leading the Rams on an unexpected run so far, come conference tournament time in Vegas, CSU may need a little more if they hope to make it to the big dance.

Fatigue hasn’t gotten in the way of Omogbo and Clavell’s production yet. But for the Rams to win the Mountain West tournament and earn a bid to the NCAA tournament, they are most likely going to need to win three games in three days.

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Since the Rams typically only play two games per week, this transition may result in the exhaustion of Clavell and Omogbo. Playing 35 to 40 minutes two games per week is one thing, but doing so three days in a row is a completely new level.

CSU will need a spark from someone else. Though Prentiss Nixon and Nico Carvacho have been extremely vital to the Rams’ success thus far, the x-factor in this circumstance is J.D. Paige.

Paige has scored an average of 9.1 points per game, below Nixon’s 12.3 clip. The redshirt sophomore has also dished out an average of 2.8 assists per game, only slightly above Nixon’s average of 2.5.

There is no question that Paige’s production has been less consistent than head coach Larry Eustachy has desired. However, there seems to be a direct link between Paige’s success and Colorado State wins.

The lucky number for the 6-foot-3 guard has been six.

When Paige scored at least six points during the Rams non-conference games, CSU won eight out of 10 games. When the Colorado native scored five points or less in non-conference games, the Rams went 0-3.

The pattern has been similar and even more evident within Colorado State’s conference slate. CSU is 9-1 in the 10 Mountain West games that Paige has scored at least six. This includes two big outings in which Paige scored 23 against Fresno State and 18 against San Jose State.

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J.D. Paige with three of his 19 first half points during the Rams 80-58 win over Alcorn State. Paige finished with a career high 23 points. (Javon Harris | Collegian)

The Rams have been less than stellar when Paige has failed to hit at least six points in Mountain West games. In such games, CSU has won just two out of five contests.

Combining the statistics, the Rams are 17-3 when Paige scores at least six and 2-6 when the guard does not.

Though it has not been as impactful, it is worth noting that there may be a correlation to Paige’s assists and CSU victories as well.

When Paige finishes with at least two assists, CSU has gone 14-5, close to a 75 percent win percentage. On the other hand, in games in which Paige has recorded one or fewer assists, the Rams have only gone 5-4 (55.6 win percentage). Given those numbers, CSU has an 18.1 percent better chance of winning when Paige collects at least two assists.

The Rams will need production from Clavell and Omogbo in order to make a run in the Mountain West Tournament. But unless the two miraculously don’t suffer from fatigue, CSU will be hoping Paige can score more than five and finish with multiple assists.

Collegian sports reporter Eddie Herz can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @Eddie_Herz