Strike 1: Yes, the Denver Nuggets miss Jamal Murray. They’re currently 5-5 without their standout guard. Yes, they’re getting the short end from the NBA refs, having attempted the fourth fewest free throws in the league. And yes, it’s really early in the season, and it’s fair to expect the young reserves to improve as the season wears on.

Yet this is a very frustrating 11-6 team to watch at the moment. Especially when they’re away from home. Right now, the road Nuggets just aren’t very good.

How much of that is due to Murray’s absence is hard to quantify. Remember, Denver suffered a big loss at Minnesota early in the season when Murray was healthy.

Whether it’s slow starts or mid-game collapses from the second unit, the common denominator when the Nuggets scuffle on an opponent’s floor: Soft defense.

After returning from a 1-4 road trip and beating the lowly San Antonio Spurs at Ball Arena, Head coach Michael Malone was asked about his team’s road woes.

“We have to find a way to be more competitive on the road. It starts with our defense. I’m just imploring our guys, we’ve got to get defense into the game early. They’re scoring too easy. The defense has to be a lot better.”

When the starters aren’t into it on the defensive end, things only get worse when Malone has to go to the bench.

He’s tried a slew of different bench combinations. Sometimes they’ve worked – like in a home win over New Orleans and a road win at lowly Detroit – but most times they’ve been poor. Opponents seem to be piling up uncontested points in the paint almost nightly.

Even with what most consider the best starting five in the NBA, the toughest thing to watch is the porous defense Denver typically plays for the first three quarters of almost every game. Waiting until the fourth quarter to stiffen up and guard guys like it matters allows lesser teams to stay in games and exploit Denver’s lack of depth late.

Is this being hypercritical so early in the year? Perhaps. The championship Nuggets were in a similar position a year ago at this time. And yes, Denver went 19-22 on the road a season ago and things still turned out okay. But you can’t argue that having home court throughout the postseason was a significant factor in their championship run. And if Miami doesn’t knock out the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Nuggets would not have had home court advantage in the Finals.

Heading into a stretch of road games, Denver is the only unbeaten home team in the NBA at 8-0, but only 3-6 on the road.

Earning home court for the playoffs matters.

One thing that could potentially help? Acquiring another big body to fortify the bench. General manager Calvin Booth should already be on the lookout for a backup center he can potentially snag before the trade deadline. Someone in the mold of Mason Plumlee (currently on the LA Clippers injured list) who can at least play solid defense and rebound while Nikola Jokic is resting. An addition like that would be huge.

Because the way things are trending, winning the division and securing home court for the postseason isn’t any sort of given this time around. Denver cannot count on being able to coast home next spring having locked things up in early March. No way teams like Phoenix, Minnesota, Dallas, the Lakers, Clippers, Warriors and even Oklahoma City are all going to fade as early as they all did a year ago. Nope, this spring, it will be a dogfight for the Western Conference top seed. Make that the top four seeds.

Along with the maturation of the young reserves, hopefully the Nuggets as a whole can find a lot more fight in them as the season wears on – especially away from Ball Arena – than they’ve shown so far.

Strike 2: Earlier this season, Colorado football coach Deion Sanders boasted that he kept “receipts.”

Apparently, he doesn’t think anyone else does.

Sanders’ thin CU squad could not keep up after a hot start, scumming to a rugged schedule and finishing Deion’s first season with six straight losses and a 4-8 record. No shame in that, given the Buffs improved by three games in the win column and played almost everyone close all season. It was definitely an improvement over 2022. A season full of sellouts isn’t too shabby, either.

There’s good reason to look forward to 2024.

The improvements were achieved in very large part through the use of the transfer portal – CU added 57 transfers over the offseason – most often with the real and implied allure of money to be gained for players via Name, Image and Likeness deals. The examples were already on the revamped roster. Sanders’ son Shedeur was the prime recipient, raking in a reported $4.4 million this year in “endorsement” deals, while standout defensive back/receiver Travis Hunter was reportedly taking home more than $2 million per.

Neither had played a game at the FBS level before getting those NIL deals for this season. The head coach/product pitch man probably had something to do with that. Deion didn’t shy away from the perception that coming to CU was going to give kids the opportunity to cash in while rubbing elbows with celebrities from all over the country.

He also told the players on CU’s roster at this time a year ago to “hit the portal,” that he was “bringing in my own luggage, and it’s Louis (Vuitton.)”

Loyalty to dear old CU? Nah.

Deion never made any bones about his recruiting methods. That was last December.

Apparently he thinks mountain folk can’t remember that far back.

Now, Deion is changing his tune regarding loyalty and the idea of getting rich quick.

This past week while addressing the media, he did something of an about face, urging the NCAA to adopt stricter rules on “commitments.” Perhaps irked by the de-commitment of his only offensive line recruit to date, Talan Chandler, who switched his pledge to Missouri, Deion complained a kid today who, in his words, “isn’t even faithful to his girlfriend” should be forced – by rule – to honor his commitment to the school he initially pledged to.

“Like, if you’re committed, that means you’re committed,” Sanders told the media, proposing that recruits who’ve verbally committed to a school be banned from taking any more visits.

And he’s also telling them not to expect to cash in while wearing the black and gold.

“But we are not an ATM,” he said. “You’re not coming here to get rich. Unless you come here with a plan to go to the NFL.”

If you’re scratching your head about now, you’re not alone.

Hypocrisy much Coach? Perhaps it slipped his mind that last offseason he did a social media photo shoot with four-star Nebraska pledge Malachi Coleman, whom he’d lured out to Boulder for a visit well after Coleman had committed to the Cornhuskers. (Coleman signed with Nebraska anyway.) Coleman was far from the only “committed” high school kid who visited CU after making their initial pledge. CU signed a number of them.

And this year, just a few days after Deion made his “loyalty” comments, the Buffs flipped Tennessee recruit, Kam Mikell, who said he was switching to CU because of Deion’s “marketing.”

These kids have all seen the commercials. Deion’s own “name, image and likeness” is everywhere. He’s college football’s No. 1-ranked pitch man now, with endorsement deals for health insurance, chicken, sunglasses, almonds, jewelry and more. Deion is all about the dollar signs. Always has been. Don’t think for one second that prospective recruits don’t know that and are reasonably expecting him to do for them what he did for Shedeur and Hunter.

Then after his “ATM” comment, Deion backed up a bit. He implored CU faithful to ante up more NIL dollars.

“We definitely need ‘giving,” he said. “You know what I mean. It’s going to be a credit card swipe with all these guys (who are) going to these playoffs. I understand that.”

Slightly confused? You’re not alone.

Deion has already congratulated himself and his staff, telling reporters, “We pretty much put a mark on college football and it will never be the same.” He wasn’t talking about a revolutionary new offense or amazing in-game decision making (those things didn’t happen.) What exactly was he referring to if unprecedented use of the transfer portal and NIL dollars aren’t it?

Do his “game changing” methods not involve trying to get players to switch commitments? Is he going to continue to change the game by dissuading them from the idea they’ll make more NIL money if they play for him?

When he arrived, Deion told everyone exactly who he was and what he was going to do. Suddenly, he wants you to forget what he said last December and believe that he’s about “commitment” and education.

In football they call this a “sudden change.” The question is, are CU backers buying it?

Receipts are available.

Strike 3: Hard to imagine a more painful way of being knocked out of bowl contention than losing your make-or-break last game on a walk off. But that’s the way it happened to the CSU Rams in Hawaii.

Then again, it’s one thing to lose a heartbreaker, it’s quite another to play a stinker of a game, find some way to tie it up late, and then have the opponent, who deserved to win anyway, find a way to beat you at the buzzer.

As the man said, you are what your record says you are, and in Jay Norvell’s second year, CSU was a 5-7 football team.

The defensive performance from Norvell’s first year fell off badly, falling all the way to second to last in the Mountain West conference statistically. CSU was the fourth most penalized team in all of college football, and a large portion of those which were needless, undisciplined and easily preventable. Yet they happened with regularity, on both sides of the ball.

And turnovers. A lousy -5 for the season, which was 101st nationally.

So swallow hard and ask yourself Ram fans: Where does the program go from here?

For starters, Colorado State needs an upgrade at quarterback.

Redshirt freshman Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi took over under center in the late stages of the season opening blowout loss to Washington State and had his moments. He put up stats, like 3,460 passing yards, the fourth most in a single season in school history, and the most ever by a freshman. He threw 22 touchdown passes, good for fifth most in a single season. He completed better than 62% of his passes.

He also threw 16 interceptions and had two lost fumbles. Three if you count the game changing miscue at Wyoming when a snap hit him in the facemask.

If you trust your eyes more than you trust purely numbers, you saw a raw, wannabe gunslinger who hasn’t learned to temper his approach and play winning football. Fowler-Nicolosi was far far FAR too loose with the football. Some of that is to be expected from a freshman, yes. But what’s disturbing is that he was exactly the same player at the end of the season as he was at the start of it. Bad turnovers and poor decision making early in the season did not lead to better decision making late in the season.

His three INT’s offset his three touchdown passes in the 2OT loss in Boulder in his first start. His inexplicable pick-six on the final play of the first half against Nevada turned what should have been a CSU rout into a close game that the Rams were fortunate to win late in the home finale.

His last interception, a forced throw into the end zone against Hawaii, turned the game around in his final start.

He was the same undisciplined gunslinger all season, start to finish.

So before Fowler-Nicolosi takes another snap for the Rams, He needs to learn. To not hold on to the ball so long, to process things faster and make better, quicker decisions. Mostly, he has to stop relying strictly on arm strength – of which he has an abundance – and stop trying to force the ball into spaces where it’s not going to fit.

Norvell would be doing the entire CSU program – including his sophomore-to-be QB – a huge favor if he were able to bring in an upperclassman quarterback via the transfer portal to compete for the starting job. A guy with more veteran savvy who had proven himself in tougher situations. Someone Fowler-Nicolosi could learn from. Simply moving forward as is and letting Fowler-Nicolosi and everyone else know that he’s going to be the starter going into next year would remove motivation for the youngster to make badly needed changes and improvements in his game.

Internal competition for playing time is the only thing that’s going to force every player on the CSU roster – including the incumbent QB – to improve. In Norvell’s third season, it should be solid improvement, or go grab some bench. That’s the only approach that will turn 5-7 into 9-3, or better.