Injuries shake up the backcourt of CSU men’s basketball

Austin White

Every great basketball team usually starts with an outstanding guard. Someone who can command his or her team from the top of the key and be the leader on the court to create organization.

This person can either be a prolific scorer themselves or a solid distributor, or even a mixture of both. Either way, they are the one who the team will look toward for the offensive play or they make first contact on defense and stop the ball.

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anthony bonner with the basketball
Anthony Bonner works the ball around during the Rams’ double-overtime loss to Wyoming on Wednesday night during the Border War. (Joe Oakman | Collegian)

For Colorado State men’s basketball, the pecking order for floor general has dwindled and the outcomes provide varying pros and cons.

“It’s kind of been an unfortunate turn of events,” head coach Larry Eustachy said about the team’s five-game losing streak and the injuries. “The teams I’ve coached are never fragile. They understand you got to go to work with what you have and you see it all over.”

Juniors Prentiss Nixon and J.D. Paige both suffered injuries in seemingly strange fashion. Nixon hurt his left ankle after landing on an Air Force defender’s foot coming down from a layup back on Jan. 17. Paige broke his hand by a hard screen set on him in the back half of the court as a San Diego State player brought the ball up on Jan. 24.

These two guards are the leading scorers for the Rams with Nixon averaging 17.9 points per game, which is sixth in the Mountain West, and Paige averaging 10.4 per contest. The two injuries have without a doubt affected the team as a whole.

Stepping up in the absence of the juniors is Raquan Mitchell and Anthony Bonner, two guards who are experiencing what starting in the Mountain West feels like. The chance to show what they can each bring to the table can be seen as the silver lining of the injuries to the regular starters.

“I’m very excited to step into that role and show people what I can do and then also contain until (Nixon and Paige) get back,” Mitchell said. “I’m just trying to stay positive for the whole team because everybody is doubting us that we can’t win without J.D. and Prentiss, but we want to show them that we can.”

Mitchell already filled that sixth-man role before the injuries to the starting guards so playing time is nothing new to him. The 6-foot-3-inch redshirt sophomore electrifies crowds by defying gravity and propelling himself to be, debatably, the best dunker on the team.

Bonner, also a redshirt sophomore, is experiencing a boost in time as well after appearing sparingly last season with 14.5 minutes played per game.

MItchell dunking
Redshirt Sophomore Raquan Mitchell (3) with one of his two huge dunks down the stretch that ignited the Rams to an 80-76 win over Winthrop. (Javon Harris | Collegian)

“When we talk he just tells me, ‘You can be as good as you want to be,'” Bonner said on what Eustachy tells him about his increased role. “‘You got the opportunity, you got the role, just keep working and you can keep that role.'”

The first question with moving bench players into the starting lineup would be their potential fatigue. Mitchell played all 40 minutes of the Rams’ road matchup against New Mexico last Saturday, the first game with both Nixon and Paige out. CSU returned home to face the rival Wyoming Cowboys Wednesday night, during which Mitchell played 42 minutes and Bonner played all 50 minutes of the double-overtime thriller.

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“I mean that 40 minutes was kind of tough,” Mitchell said. “I just got to get through it, play through it and play through fatigue and keep my mind and play mentally.”

“Preseason conditioning is so hard, summer pushing the sleds, practicing hard that first month, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.,” Bonner said. “It’s not a fatigue thing, we just got to show leadership and play hard.”

In the game against Wyoming, the Rams held large leads toward the end of both halves, but lost both of them, resulting in questions of fatigue to still linger.

However, the Larry Eustachy style of basketball is one that relies on getting to the basket and making contested layups or nailing shots from the free throw line. With injuries to guards, the reliance on the Rams’ big men has increased in order to take some pressure off the guard rotation.

In the game against New Mexico, Mitchell and Bonner combined for only six points and five of the Rams’ 23 turnovers. The Wyoming matchup showed improvement, though, by the duo combining for 32 of the Rams’ 86 points and the team committing only 12 turnovers against the Cowboys.

Other guards are having opportunities to see the floor as well with redshirt junior Robbie Berwick and redshirt sophomore Lorenzo Jenkins receiving more minutes. However, neither one has made too much of an offensive impact to help make up for the points lost in Paige and Nixon.

Guard Anothony Bonner (15) attempts a layup against a Wyoming defender on Jan. 31, 2018. The Rams lost 91-86 in double overtime. (Jack Starkebaum | Collegian)

“I think the amazing thing about that (game against New Mexico) was how Robbie (Berwick), cause he’s been hurt…the poise he showed in that environment,” Eustachy said. “Yeah, his conditioning is a struggle right now, but a lot of our breakdowns were because guys are out on the court too long…but we will be better for it in the long run.”

A potential return to action for Nixon could be next Tuesday, Feb. 6 when the Rams travel to Colorado Springs to take on the Air Force Falcons, a rematch of the game where Nixon got hurt.

For Paige, the time table for his return was stated as 3-4 weeks when first announced last Thursday, Jan. 25. If that plan stays true, he could return for the Rams’ matchup at Fresno State on Feb. 17 or potentially at Nevada on Feb. 25.

As for now, the Rams welcome in the league-leading Nevada Wolfpack Saturday night. CSU will look to end its five-game losing streak and get their first conference win at home when the game tips off at 6 p.m.

Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at sports@collegain.com or on Twitter @ajwrules44