From 8-2 to 8-4 in only three days; it’s been a tough weekend for the Colorado State Rams men’s basketball team.
It’s not just that they lost two straight games, but how it all unfolded, which should be setting off alarms inside the team’s headquarters at the McGraw Center on CSU’s campus.
In Saturday’s “Duel in Denver” against the Kansas State Wildcats of the Big 12, the green and gold were money to start the contest, knocking down jumpers and rebounding well to take an eight-point lead with seven minutes ’til halftime. At that point, Gian Clavell — in only his second contest this year after being suspended for the team’s first nine games — picked up his second foul and sat for the rest of the half.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats went on an incredible 23-8 run, taking a 44-37 lead into halftime, one the Rams wouldn’t come close to sniffing or coming back from as they lost 89-70 in the Pepsi Center.
It was easily the most points Colorado State had given up all season and it was the second-best shooting percentage (49.2) the team has allowed all year. For a young team – a tired one at that, head coach Larry Eustachy said after the loss — to lose a lead is one thing, but for a team whose main goal is to play defense first, it was a shocking blowout loss.
“I just felt like we came not preparing to guard their players,” senior leader Emmanuel Omogbo said after the game. “Letting guys get easy layups, just being soft, letting them block our shots. … We’re better than that, and we just got our ass kicked tonight.”
To wit, K-State outscored CSU 36-18 in the paint on Saturday while total rebounds were tied 35-35.
“Kansas State was the best team we played this year,” Eustachy said after the loss Saturday. “I thought the start of the game we had a falseness about us by making some shots which we ordinarily don’t. We got away from who we were and who we are. And we gotta quickly get it back because we practice tomorrow and play on Monday. Biggest game of the year.”
Well, they didn’t get “it” back on Monday, either, losing on a last-second, buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Brandon Brown of Loyola Marymount with 0.9 seconds to play. The Rams were up by 10 points with nine minutes to go, but they couldn’t hold on to win due to a lack of togetherness on either end of the court.
“I think everyone had their own agenda,” sophomore point guard Prentiss Nixon said after the loss. “It showed. Everyone trying to make one-on-one plays to the rim and create for themselves instead of creating for others. We got the lead by getting in transition and creating for others. We got away from ourselves and we turned the ball over.
“Those two mixed, it doesn’t equal anything good, ever,” Nixon finished.
Again, the Rams let a big lead slip away, this time late in the game. But more shocking than their turnovers and lack of cohesion on offense — which we’ve become used to this year — was the fact CSU was out-rebounded 40-31 by Loyola Marymount, at home in Moby Arena. The Rams also allowed their opponents to shoot 43.1 percent from the floor.
Simply, Larry Eustachy’s brand of basketball is about winning ugly, getting dirty by rolling on the ground for rebounds and getting physical in the paint to win loose balls. It’s how they dominated their rival Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder three weeks ago, a game which seems like forever ago at this point for the Rams.
D.J. Johnson of Kansas State scored at will in the paint on Saturday, multiple times uncontested, leading to Omogbo saying his team played “soft.” They did, which is the exact opposite of how they must play to win games this season.
Down the stretch against Loyola Marymount Monday, there were the soft Rams again, allowing an offensive rebound off a missed free throw with the game in the balance. And once again, Colorado State was dominated in the paint, 30-12 this time, a place where the Rams must exert their will to come out the victors.
After a pleasantly surprising start – “7-2, I never thought we’d be 7-2,” Eustachy said two weeks ago – these Rams are in danger of plummeting off a cliff just before Mountain West conference play starts.
In their final non-conference game, the Rams face the 4-10 Long Beach State 49ers on Thursday night in what should be a layup before conference play starts on Dec. 28. It’s one final tune-up before the most difficult and more important games begin.
But if this last weekend has taught us anything, it’s that Colorado State won’t win many contests going forward without playing Eustachy’s gritty brand of basketball.