“We don’t have a starting five,” Larry Eustachy said earlier this season. “We have a nine.”
This is a unique situation and season for Eustachy, his fifth leading the Colorado State Rams men’s basketball team. It could be labeled as a transitional season, seeing as four seniors, a graduate player and two talented assistants left Fort Collins for greener pastures over the Summer. Instead, they’re competing and winning on a regular basis with a rotating starting lineup and contributions from everyone.
“7-2? I never thought we’d be 7-2,” Eustachy, one of the greatest interviews in sports, said late on a chilly, snowy Tuesday night inside a warm Moby Arena.
Mainly, he’s giving his young team credit for pushing through the adversity. But it’s possible the longtime head coach really didn’t think his team would win seven of their first nine contests.
The Rams went into Boulder and played their brand of basketball – Larry’s brand of basketball – and came out decided victors.
It’s all about gritty defense, allowing no easy buckets while making the opponents fight for every offensive opportunity. And Larry-ball features reckless rebounding, bullying opposing players for the ball and diving on the court (or over the scorers’ table).
When the Rams want it more, they win. Simple as that. It’s why we saw Colorado State, the 14-point underdogs against Colorado, go into Boulder and beat-down the Buffs to win by 14.
“I mentioned it,” Eustachy said of telling his team about their underdog status.
And that’s the other thing Larry brings: He knows how to get into the head of his players, with some mixed results, but mostly positive overall.
“I know all you guys thought we were going to lose, right?” Emmanuel Omogbo asked the media after CSU beat CU by 14.
Honestly, yes. I didn’t think Colorado State — devoid of a true star player, with all this youth and a short bench — could go into Boulder and knock off the senior-laden Buffs. Shows how much I know. (To wit, the Buffs beat No. 13 Xavier Wednesday night.)
Last week in Boulder, Omogbo led the team in scoring (16 points) and as a physical presence, grabbing eight boards. But it was also the x-factor of Nico Carvacho enjoying his breakout game — 14 points, nine rebounds — which put the Rams over the hump against one of their bitter rivals.
“It was a grown-man’s game,” Omogbo said of the freshman Carvacho’s performance.
On Saturday, in front of a packed Moby Arena, the Rams lost down the stretch to a superb Wichita State team.
On Tuesday night, the Rams bounced back, albeit against a Division II team in Arkansas Fort-Smith. CSU ran away with the win, setting a single-season record by scoring 93 points while five players scored in double digits. They were led by Che Bob‘s 21, a career-high for the JUCO transfer forward who earned his first start in that game. And then there was another breakout performance, this time by Anthony Bonner, who also hit a career-high in points scored (17) while going 3-4 from downtown.
“He’s the best shooter on the team,” Bob said of Bonner.
Those are big words considering Bonner is merely a freshman and Gian Clavell is still on the team.
Yes, Clavell’s arrest and suspension — he’s recently been allowed to practice but not play with the team — set the Rams offense back to begin the year. It was clear that they were searching for firepower, especially from beyond the arc, and Prentiss Nixon, J.D. Paige and even Bonner have stepped up to fill that void.
Clavell’s void also presents Eustachy with another problem: Instead of having 10 eligible players, he only has nine. Five young men, all transfers from DI schools, sit on the bench every night, watching their new teammates struggle to find ways to win.
So, what’s resulted is a band of brothers playing for and relying on one another.
It’s why we saw the Rams enjoy five young men score in double digits for the first time all season; these Rams are finally coming together, building chemistry and learning what it takes to win.
It’s also why we’ve seen so many different leading scorers throughout nine games. First it was Braden Koelliker — a JUCO transfer forward — who scored 21 points against New Mexico State. Then, it was Omogbo, who’s the closest thing to a star this team has without Calvell. And Omogbo both has to score as well as lead the green and gold in rebounds for them to compete with consistency.
We’ve seen Nixon (20 vs. Wichita State), Bob (21, Tuesday night) and Paige (23 vs. Alcorn State) lead the team in scoring in their respective games, as well as explosive efforts from Carvacho in Boulder and from Bonner on Tuesday night. And they’re not afraid to give one another props when they’re deserved.
Simply, this is how this particular team — with an incredibly short bench — is going to have to win. Grind it out on the defensive side, utilizing the altitude and some attitude to force tough opportunities for the opponents and then rebound the hell out of the ball. Both on the offensive and defensive sides of the court.
Then, on offense, find a way.
Eustachy, who’s known for never practicing offense with is team, admitted they worked on offense in practice on Monday. It was a good thing they did, too, because these Rams have looked completely lost on the offensive side of the court many times this season. A lack of flow, a lack of cohesion and “too much dribbling,” as Larry said Tuesday night were part of the offense.
On Tuesday, there were four men outside the perimeter and one inside, with the men around the arc passing the ball around while others cut to the hoop. It wasn’t the Lakers’ triangle offense, or anything resembling beauty, but Colorado State came a long way in a short time.
As this season continues forward — we’re about one-third of the way through — look for different young men to step up night in and night out, because, as Eustachy said, “We don’t have a starting five; we have a nine.”
“I go to each and every one of these kids. They have my back,” Eustachy continued last Wednesday in Boulder. “Because they know I have their back. You don’t see what goes on. … You see a guy in a black shirt jumping up and down, being very vocal, but you don’t see the Thanksgiving dinners, and individual meetings. … They don’t play for you that way unless they know you care.”
From the man in black dancing to Johnny Cash after the Rams win over New Mexico State to start the season, to the Thanksgiving dinner and more things we don’t see behind closed doors, it seems we’re seeing the softer side of Larry Eustachy.
And for Colorado State basketball, it seems to be working well.