What we learned from CSU’s opening-night victory over Sacramento State

Colin Barnard

In its first real action of the 2017-18 season, the Colorado State men’s basketball team defeated Sacramento State 72-61.

The Rams intertwined spurts of dominant and mediocre play throughout the first 20 minutes before putting the Hornets away in the latter part of the second half. Combined with the team’s two exhibition games to begin the year, there are plenty takeaways from the first week of play.

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1. Establishing defensive identity is paramount to CSU’s success

Coach Eustachy looks to offical
CSU head coach Larry Eustachy questions a call made by an official during the Rams’ 72-61 win over Sacramento State on Nov. 10, 2017. (Jack Starkebaum | Collegian)

The Rams established a defensive presence early against Sacramento State and did not relinquish it. Junior guard J.D. Paige set the intensity in the first minute of the game with a steal that became an easy layup at the other end. Minutes later, senior forward Che Bob recorded a block and steal on consecutive defensive stands.

Nixon revealed that, although shooting may be inconsistent at times, the Rams can always establish their identity in defense.

“If you miss, you miss. You get back and play defense. That’s just the style of this team is defense first,” junior guard Prentiss Nixon said. “Our goal is to be a top defensive team in the country. I think we started to show that today. (Sacramento State) went 19-for-60 from the field, so I think we played pretty good defense in the half court today.”

After allowing 75 and 79 points in the first exhibition games, the defensive effort was somewhat concerning. In both games, the Rams were unable to corral the opposition’s top option. Colorado Mesa’s Emilio Acedo scored 31 points while Northern Colorado’s Andre Spight tallied 25.

On Friday, though, CSU held Justin Strings, who put up 44 points in the Hornets’ first game, to 19 points on 6-of-22 shooting. The 61-point showing signifies the growth that Eustachy wants to see from his young team.

“For a very young team, I was very pleased,” head coach Larry Eustachy said. “That’s why we won was the way we stopped them.”

2. Prentiss Nixon, J.D. Paige are offensive leaders with room for improvement

No longer do the Rams have the leadership of senior duo Gian Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo. Their graduations left a glaring hole in the middle of CSU’s offense, one that guards Prentiss Nixon and J.D. Paige figured to fill.

Though the tandem proved their ability to lead CSU’s offense, they also showed room for improvement. Nixon and Paige successfully transitioned into their scoring roles in the first game of the season, accounting for 43 percent of the team’s scoring.

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The aggression of the two was certainly encouraging, as both players did not hesitate with the ball in their hands. However, that confidence also showed up negatively in their jump shooting percentage.

The two combined for a lowly 3-of-12 from the beyond the 3-point line. Removing their 3-point shooting, Nixon shot 50 percent from the field while his backcourt partner shot 80 percent. Even though Nixon and Paige led the team in scoring with 16 and 15 points, respectively, there is reason to believe that further improvement is imminent.

3. Deion James shows growth Eustachy was looking for 

Deion James shoots the ball
Junior forward Deion James takes a layup during the Rams’ 72-61 win over Sacramento State on Nov. 10, 2017. (Jack Starkebaum | Collegian)

From the beginning of preseason practices, head coach Larry Eustachy praised the potential of former Division II JUCO Player of the Year Deion James. But in the first two exhibition games of the season, it was clear that James needed to conquer a small learning curve.

On Friday night, though, James showed some of that promise. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes of action. He shot just 1-of-5 from the field, doing most of his damage at the free throw line where he converted 8-of-9 attempts.

Eustachy was pleased with the growth James showed in the first regular season game of the season.

“(James) was very active, he’s a product of his practices,” Eustachy said. “He’s starting to practice hard, and it showed up tonight, for sure.”

James was particularly effective considering that fellow big men Nico Carvacho and Che Bob were limited with foul trouble early. He picked up the slack down low and showed tremendous promise for the remainder of the season, especially if he can improve his shooting efficiency.

Collegian Sports Editor Colin Barnard can be reached by email at sports@colelgian.com or on Twitter @ColinBarnard_.