Zahlmann: Rams see several progressions during rebuild year

Luke Zahlmann

The world of sports is a chasm of constant improvement.

In a successful program, one of the most important signs of triumph is a team that looks far better in their final game than they did in their opening bout.

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After four wins in their first five games, the Colorado State men’s basketball team has dropped 11 of their last 14 games, with four coming in their conference slate. For a pundit that peruses a box score and neglects the game, the team seems to be regressing.

When considering the year was one of rebuilding for the Rams, the team has been adding onto a foundation being set by Niko Medved.

As the team has progressed through more than half of their schedule, they’ve shown improvement in multiple areas.

Spreading the wealth

To begin the year, the Rams faced a pair of lesser schools with Colorado Christian, a Division II program and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, an FCS program.

In those pair of wins, Medved’s squad posted 21 assists in each, accounting for more than half of their made attempts. Following their opening wins, the sharing ways subsided for much of the year. 

In the next 13 games, the Rams offense averaged 11 assists per game. Though the figure would still reside above Wyoming’s average on the year (9.5), it’s a far cry from the brand of basketball Medved has preached.

In their last four games, the team has begun to find their footing again. With a pair of games posting 25 and 26 assists respectively, the team has averaged 19.25 per game in their last quartet of matchups. That number, inversely from the aforementioned 13-game span, would lead the conference.

After the team’s win over Air Force in which they accumulated 25 assists, Medved described their ball-sharing ways as being “the way the game is supposed to be played.”

The world of Robbie Berwick even includes some flair: 

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In the team’s four games with 20-plus assists, all are wins. A sign that if the team continues to embrace the sharing imposed by Medved, brighter moments are ahead.

Moore steals, fewer problems

After leaving Drake University to chase his dream job at CSU, Medved, along with his assistant coaches, were followed by a pair of youngsters: Kendle Moore and Adam Thistlewood.

The former, inserted into the starting lineup in just his first game and each of the team’s 18 preceding games, has been a conference-leading thief.

On the year, Moore has aided the Rams’ defensive efforts with 31 steals. In the team’s last eight games, the guard has accumulated multiple thefts in all but two of the games for a total of 15.

The trend for Moore comes after a Danville High School run that saw him swipe 2.9 balls per game.

With his ability to create fastbreak opportunities, Moore has also been able to exploit his speed. In that same span, he had a 23-point outburst against Air Force, a large reason for the team’s blowout win over the Falcons.

In that same bout, the Rams accumulated a season-high 15 steals, led once again by Moore with four of his own.

J.D. turning the Paige en route to a career year

In his first year after being largely overshadowed by Gian Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo, J.D. Paige had to deal with the chaos of a trio of different coaches in a single year.

After serving his suspension that bled into this year, Paige has found a new form, bursting into the limelight for the program. After averaging double-digits just once in a year prior to the team’s current campaign, Paige has averaged 15.1 points per game this year, second on the team.

The average has been boosted by several offensive explosions from Paige. 

A man dribbles a basketball
J.D. Paige (22) drives towards the net during the game against the Razorbacks on December 5, 2018. Both teams played aggressive strategies throughout the game, but the Razorbacks ended up winning 74-98, making CSU’s record 4-5. (Josh Schroeder| Collegian)

In 10 separate games, Paige has posted more than his season average, with his season high (23) coming against both Montana State and Sam Houston State. With both games coming within single digits, his efforts were the difference.

The Colorado native has also upped his efficiency, upping his percentage from last year (35.3) to 44.6 this year, a nearly 10-percent boost. His 40.9-percent mark from outside leads all starters as well, trailing only Sam Bannec, who sank his lone attempt, on the roster.

When his shot has failed, Paige has developed into one of the Rams’ best finishers at the rim as well. His improvements were most readily available in his aforementioned season-high bout against SHSU in which he sank only a single 3-point attempt, converting his other six shots near the rim.

Big Chile bringing the heat

The dominance Nico Carvacho enforced in the Mountain West portion of last year’s schedule was merely a precursor to a full-fledged breakout.

Outside of his nation-leading rebounding rate (12.4 per game), Carvacho has also scored his 15.7 points per game on 59 percent from the field. His efficiency leads the Mountain West through the early portions of conference play.

Plucking a highlight game for Carvacho on the year has become increasingly difficult as the season progresses. 

Man dunks the ball
Nico Carvacho (32) dunks the ball right before halftime at Moby Arena, during the CSU game vs CCU. (Devin Cornelius | Collegian)

Whether it was the 28-point, 20-rebound game against UNLV or his Long Beach State spree of 23 and 22, Carvacho has elevated his impact.

With a desire for conditioning and pace, Medved has also brought Carvacho’s workload to 30 minutes per game without the big man faltering.

A bevy of advancements in Carvacho’s game has put him on pace to become one of the elite big men in Rams’ history, alongside Jason Smith and Rich Strong. With a full four years under his belt, he’ll likely have his name atop most statistical leaderboards in CSU history at the conclusion of his career in Fort Collins.

As a player that Medved has said ‘plays with his hair on fire,’ Carvacho has just begun heating up, a scary thought for inner conference and out-of-conference foes alike.

Collegian Sports Director Luke Zahlmann can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.