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A Tale of Two Programs: Leadership vs. Trash Talking

January 16, 2017

I witnessed a bad basketball game in Moby Arena on Saturday evening.  It had very little to do with the final score.

It had to do with two teams who decided pre-game that winning the trash-talking battle was of the highest priority.  It began pre-game with players heard saying things to each other. It continued during the game both on and off the court.  And it also went on well after the game was over with more yack in the parking lot.

The two biggest culprits for CSU…

Seniors Gian Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo.

Both of whom could be seen on the court not just talking but selfishly trying to go one against five in their attempt to “lead” their team.

More than once Omogbo grabbed a rebound or loose ball in the backcourt and decided he was going to go coast to coast.  Its a play that earns a player a scholarship at an AAU event or a JuCo game but it isnt a winning play at the D-1 level.  A winning play is to put the ball into the hands of a guard and then run the win hard in hopes of receiving a return pass for an easy layup.  Inb Omogbo’s case, his first attempt ended with a layup being blocked. The second was an embarrassing pass to nobody that zipped out of bounds after he had stumbled, spun, and completely lost his bearings.

Clavell was yacking with a UNM player on the bench the entire game. He had a horrible turnover right there,no doubt  focused on the wrong thing. And in the second half, a wild spin move near the elbow created a turnover and easy runout for the opponent.

Mental weakness and selfish play by the players expected to be leaders.

Contrast this with the performance of two seniors Ellen Nystrom and Elie Gustavsson as the CSU Womens team met New Mexico later that day.

CSU struggled after Nystrom went to the bench with her second foul early in the second quarter.  They trailed 32-24 at the half and by 48-37 with 2 minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter.

And then the seniors stepped up.

Nystrom did her thing, directing the offense on one end and defending players big and small on the other. Gustavsson did her thing, guarding much bigger players in the post, rebounding, running the floor and scoring inside and out.

At games end, the Rams had completely turned the game around, scoring a 79-64 road win. Nystrom delivered 5 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 steal in those final 12 minutes.  Gustavsson delivered 9 points(including the go ahead jumper), 3 rebounds, and 1 assist in those final 12 minutes.  They were the best players on the floor when it mattered.

With the win, Nystrom and Gustavsson’s career record in conference regular season games is now 52-7.

With the loss, Clavell’s MWC regular season record moved to 26-15. Omogbo’s 11-12.

I know leaders when I see them. And the results dont lie.

New Mexico 84 – Colorado State 71

January 16, 2017

On an afternoon when Larry Eustachy played the peacemaker (more on that later), the New Mexico Lobos woofed their way over the home team, dominating and eventually clowning the Rams in their own gym.

The game was close through the first 10 minutes but the Lobos were having their way on both ends of the floor. Their height in the paint prevented the Rams from scoring at the rim, their crisp play on the offensive end led to open shots which the Lobos were converting at a high rate. New Mexico was playing at their tempo and they began to punish the Rams both inside and out as they ran out to a 44-34 halftime lead.

After an early parry by the Rams to get the deficit, the Lobos quickly pushed their lead back into double figures and the game was never close again.

The Lobos began to clown the Rams with their crisp execution of offensive sets coming out of time outs. First a Dane Kuiper baseline jumper running off a pair of screens (Kuiper would finish in double figures showing beautiful offensive touch before fouling out on a couple of dubious calls). Second, a Sam Logwood alley-oop dunk off of a back screen.  Easy hoops, well-executed plays that CSU has no clue how to run.

And then the clown play of the game.

A wild Gian Clavell spin on the offensive end led to a turnover and steal for an easy run-out layup by the Lobo’s Elijah Brown.  UNM’s Joe Furstinger trailed the play by 40′ but when no Ram chased Brown, he slowed up and waited for Furstinger, then threw the ball off the backboard for Furstinger to complete the NBA All-Star game dunk.  Unnecessary and clownish. 

And then the ugliness as Furstinger set a hard pick at midcourt that knocked out the Rams’ JD Paige.  While eventually ruled legal on replay, there was clearly intent to deliver a blow as Furstinger celebrated by flexing his muscles and continued his run down the court meeting CSU’s Anthony Bonner with a shove as well. The Lobo lead was nearly 20 and the clock was at 2 minutes and thats the behavior the visitors chose.

The officials (led by the incompetent Larry Spaulding) stopped the game, Players brushed each other at midcourt, New Mexico assistants came onto the court, and Larry Eustachy went to his fallen starter Paige. 

 In the aftermath, the UNM assistants were ejected for leaving the bench and were forced to make the ignominious walk past the CSU bench where words were spoken with the CSU bench.  It was a horrible mistake to walk them by the CSU bench when they could have exited via the entrance on their side of the bench to get to their locker room.  And would no doubt lead to some unnecessary post-game histrionics between the teams.

The officials ruled the Furstinger screen to be legal, Paige was helped off the floor, Elijah Brown grabbed a ball and started punkishly dunking it at his end. The game continued with no incident (other than a Brown soft shoulder into Clavell while dribbling out the clock).  Larry Eustachy instructed his team to dribble out the final 20 seconds, the teams went through the handshake line coldly, order had been restored, and the Lobos sent the Rams and their loyal fans home sad.

The Lobos had shot 56%, the Rams 36%. The Lobos dominated the paint, outscoring the Rams 32-16 and outrebounding them 39-29.  Brown would finish with 25 points.

Larry the Peacemaker

I’m not a big Eustachy fan and I think I’ve been pretty clear about that.  But I have to compliment him for his behavior that kept this thing from absolutely blowing up.  No coach likes to see his team play poorly and when New Mexico started to rub poop all over the Rams’ collective faces in the second half I have to think his blood was boiling inside.  After watching Paige get knocked out, Eustachy’s response was cool, calm, and collected.

He could have escalated it very easily.  For while he only played the 7 players who will be eligible starting January 16th, he had three players on the bench (Che Bob, Devocio Butler, and Kimani Jackson) that he could have inserted into the game for the final two minutes. He could have instructed those players to go Hanson Brothers (see the movie Slapshot), knocking Lobos to the floor and starting up something worse.  Fights, ejections, a free for all.  He could have played to his seething home crowd.  And it would have been risk free.  Those three players were lost for the season anyway; any penalties for bad behavior would be served against the Prairie View’s of the world next season.  UNM could have lost players for upcoming games this year.

Instead Larry Eustachy chose to rise above all the crap, calmed his team down, and allowed the game on the floor to finish without incident.  I dont think I would have done the same if I were in his shoes. 

The aftermath…

After the game there was a video record of a dust-up between CSU player Emmanuel Omogbo and UNM assistant coach Terrence Rencher.  I’m not going to get into that because there is too much he said, she said going on.  I rely on my own eyes, ears, and brain these days (arguably a treacherous path).

But what has been reported in terms of incidents pre-game and post-game on top of what I observed during the game is an embarrassment to both programs.

Just 4 short years ago these two programs were Top 25 programs nationally and they squared off in an epic game in Moby that decided a conference championship.  New Mexico scored a great win that day but more importantly, those two teams went after each other on the court and let their basketball, not their mouths, do the talking.

Neither program is a Top 100 program these days.  

The crap I watched and heard about on Saturday is the reason why.

Both head coaches are running their respective programs into the ground.

The Birth of The Magnificent Seven

January 8, 2017

News came last week that three of the ten active players on CSU’s Mens’ Basketball roster were academically ineligible.  The three would be able to play until the start of the second semester. So it was only a matter of time before CSU would be forced to play with a 7-man rotation.

That time came in the second half of the game with Air Force.

 A starting five of guards Gian Clavell, Prentiss Nixon, JD Paige and forwards Emmanuel Omogbo and Nico Carvacho.  Guard Anthony Bonner and forward Braden Koelliker off the bench.

And if the second half proves to be a leading indicator of where this team is headed, Ram fans should be buying, buying, buying into this team.

Because the Rams wore down the deeper Falcons with their defensive intensity and unleashed a heretofore unseen offense as they shredded Air Force both inside and out.

On defense, the Rams were dealing with all of the precise motion, screens, and cuts of Air Force’s offense by doing a lot of switching.  It had cost them a bit in the first half as poor communication on the switches led to some wide open layups for the Falcons.  The beauty of the Princeton offense is that it was designed to create mismatches with good shooting bigs on the perimeter and the ability to post guys down low.

Switching defenses are not easy to play against Princeton offenses. Guards get stuck on bigs and the resulting mismatch in the post can create a lot of easy looks. Unless your guards defend intelligently and physically.  And that is what the Rams did as players like JD Paige (who was visibly ill and somehow persevered for 30+ minutes), Prentiss Nixon, Anthony Bonner, and Gian Clavell never once backed down to the challenges they faced defending the interior.  Only once in the second half did the Rams give up a layup.  Every other shot inside the arc was heavily contested.  And they were active with their hands, creating turnovers for some easy runout hoops.  In short, the Rams delivered a master class defensively.

Air Force was clearly concerned about defending the paint and not giving second chance points so they were very much packed in defensively with a 2-3 zone for most of the game.  In the second half, CSU moved the ball crisply and had really good spacing that created a lot of open looks from beyond the arc.  Six of the seven CSU players buried 3-balls in the second half.  Gian Clavell made a bunch of them but all were making their open looks.  

The end result…

50-21 in favor of the Rams in the first 15+ minutes.

Like any team at this point in the season, there are still some things to work on.  Especially when it comes to taking fouls.  With only seven players, you have to be really good at avoiding silly fouls.  There were a few committed during this game that fall into this category.  Aggressive defense can result in fouls but there are good ones to take (as in preventing a layup) and bad ones to take (like a weak hold of a player who is not in position to hurt you offensively).

That being said, here’s the deal.

The collective motor of this group of seven players is extraordinary.  Emmanuel Omogbo is relentless over the full 94′ as he runs, guards, rebounds.  The 4 guards are collectively the toughest group of defenders seen in Moby in I dont know how long.  And bigs Carvacho and Koelliker really understand their roles in how best to contribute on both ends of the floor with their effort and their skills.

Yesterday was a snippet of what is possible with this group.  There’s still a lot of season ahead of them and the distinct possibility of lots of twists and turns to the plot.

But when given the opportunity yesterday, this group of players showed what can happen when seven become one.

Folks, I give you The Magnificent Seven. (Special thanks to Rams4Three for his fantastic artwork)

Colorado State 85 – Air Force 58

January 8, 2017

The Rams returned to Moby after a two game road swing for an encounter with in-state rival Air Force. It was their first game at home since an annnouncement that 3 of their 10 players would be ineligible to play during the second semester. There was a lot of interest by an enthusiastic crowd to see how the Rams would do with their 7-man rotation.

Head Coach Larry Eustachy was sitting on 499 career wins as a head coach and chances looked good for 500 as Eustachy has never lost to Air Force while at CSU.

Rivalry, rotation, milestones all on the line.

And the Rams delivered an absolute clinic on both ends of the court over 40 minutes, giving their coach his milestone 500th win and demonstrating that this is a team to be reckoned with.

The Rams got out of the gate quickly and jumped to an 8-2 lead.  The Falcons responded by pushing the pace to create easy transition baskets and took advantage of some Ram miscommunication on defense to score some wide open layups.  The Falcons pushed into the lead and then the teams began trading blows on both ends.  For CSU, Prentiss Nixon was carrying them from the perimeter and Emmanuel Omogbo was owning the paint. For Air Force it was big Frank Toohey in the paint and from the outside.

The first pivotal point in the game came just inside 4 minutes when Omogbo picked up his 2nd foul.  Air Force looked like they might push themselves into a nice halftime lead.  But the Rams’ Gian Clavell decided it was time to put a bit of a stamp on the game.  He scored a beautiful banked runner, assisted Nixon on a jumper, and grabbed tough rebounds.  He sent the Rams into the room at halftime leading 33-28 and had given the fans a glimpse at what was to come.

The Rams showed how ready they were when Air Force threw a junk 1-3-1 zone on their first possession and Omogbo ripped a pass through the zone to Nico Carvacho who finished at the rim. And then Gian Clavell did what he does best which is scoring in spurts.  He kickstarted a 10-0 run and the Rams led 45-32.

And they didnt stop there.

Defensively they forced Air Force to take tough shots and created turnovers leading to a ton of easy points, including dunks by Nixon and Omogbo.  Offensively they displayed firepower from the perimeter as Omogbo, Clavell, Bonner, Nixon, Paige, and Clavell all made three-balls.  The Rams would finish with a season-high 14 three’s.

At the 5-minute mark they had pushed their lead to 83-49 and it was time to get seniors Gian Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo their just due with standing ovations from the crowd and emotional hugs from their head coach.

Clavell finished with a season high 28 points and 7 rebounds. Omogbo delivered his 8th double-double of the year, finishing with 14 and 10 and added a career tying 5 assists. They were aided by 20 from Prentiss Nixon and 11 from Anthony Bonner off the bench.

And when the final horn sounded,the Rams had given their coach his milestone 500th victory and together they danced at midcourt.

More thoughts…

Technically the Rams played with more than their seven as Devocio Butler came off the bench to play 2 minutes in the first half.  But his play was inconsequential and the game really was owned by the seven players who remain academically eligible for the rest of the season.

These seven players have a monumental task ahead of them and it will not be easy.  There is no doubting their heart and toughness.  These guys are fearless and will run themselves into the ground.

They have an opportunity to create memories for themselves and their fans this season.

Speaking of memories…

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In the stands today were ex-players Andy Ogide and Jesse Carr, and they were joined by current Director of Player Development Pierce Hornung.  I can close my eyes and see Jesse driving the lane and dunking on New Mexico, Pierce dominating Air Force to the tune of something like 23 points and 17 rebounds, and Andy delivering one double-double after another on his way to being named first team All-MWC in 2011.

Colorado State 70 – San Jose State 67 OT (Women)

January 5, 2017

A funny thing happened on the way to what looked early on as a comfortable home conference victory.

The Rams had come out of the gate quickly and established an early 8-2 lead which they extended early in the 2nd quarter to 20-9. They werent exactly hitting on all cylinders offensively but they were playing their trademark defense and taking care of the basketball.  At the half the Rams led comfortably at 32-23.  And when Elie Gustavsson opened the second half with a 3-point play to push the lead to 12, they seemed to be on their way.

And then  the Spartans’ Dez Ramos, a 5’7″ bundle of energy, happened.  

Ramos was coming off of a 40-point performance against Nevada but had struggled in the first half against the tall and active Rams’ D.  The second half proved to be very different as she got hot, making a variety of runners, pull-ups, and deep perimeter shots.  Other than Ellen Nystrom and Gustavsson, the Rams were struggling to score and before you knew it, the Spartans were back within 4 to close the third quarter.

Ramos continued her crazy scoring, the Rams cooler off even more and next thing you know, San Jose State was leading by 5 points with about a minute remaining. The Spartans were well on their way to scoring a famous road victory.

And then it was CSU’s Ellen Nystrom’s turn to say no to that idea.

Nystrom first drove hard to the basket to draw a foul. SHe converted the free throws to reduce the lead to 3. After a CSU steal, she calmly caught the ball on the left wing, measured a three-ball and nailed it to tie the game at 58.  It was only the 2nd made three-ball by the Rams but it was the biggest.

The Rams nearly won at the buzzer after Nystrom gathered a board off a Ramos miss, pushed the ball upcourt and found an open Sofie Tryggersson whose buzzer beater banged off the rim. It would have capped an incredible sequence in the final minute but want to be.

Overtime.

And the Rams came out strongly as both Nystrom and Gustavsson did their damage inside. They grabbed a 64-61 lead with about two minutes remaining and had the ball.

And then came the play of the game.

CSU had the ball and were looking to get the ball inside to Nystrom.  Tryggedsson saw on open lane for a pass but a San Jose State defender came off the weak side to steal the ball and begin a 2-on-1 break the other way.  A pass, an open layup…

But no!

Elie Gustavsson has hustled back on defense and delivered a clean block from behind.  

The biggest winning play all night.

Nystrom followed with an and-1 and the Rams finished the game out at the FT line even though San Jose State nailed a couple of three-balls.

From comfortable to tense to nearly hopeless to pure joy.  It was a game full of swings and could have easily gone the other way.

But in the end, the Rams prevailed and had given their fans a wonderful victory. One it turns out was the 100th as the CSU Head Coach for Ryun Williams.

More thoughts…

Dez Ramos finished with 34 points.  Its always fun to watch a player go off like that, regardless of the color of the shirt they’re wearing.  She was in the zone and nearly carried her team to the win.

On CSU’s side, Nystrom and Gustavsson were extraordinary.  They combined for 52 points and 25 rebounds.  And when it really mattered, they had refused to lose.  And make no mistake about it, this was a tough one following their performance in the previous game vs Boise State.  Their legacy at CSU continues to grow.

Boise State 51 – Colorado State 45 (Women)

January 1, 2017

Its not very often that you get a heavyweight matchup so early in the season.

The challengers from Boise came in at 11-1 with their only loss to Top 10 Washington. They returned 4 of 5 starters from a strong suad in the previous year and while not voted the pre-season favorites to win the MWC, they should have been. The Lady Broncos are an offensive juggernaut averaging 75+ points per game and nearly 40% from beyond the arc.

The champ – the Rams who have won 3 straight conference regular season championships and had 22 straight wins over MWC foes and 22 straight at home – both school records.  And on this New Years Eve the Rams were trying to complete an undefeated year at Moby.

The Rams won the opening tip and leader Ellen Nystrom immediately turned the ball over on a careless pass.  A harbinger of what was to follow for the next 40 minutes. Both teams defended their turf well and neither team was making many shots. The Broncos led 11-8 after the first quarter. The Rams had 4 turnovers and 2 missed layups.

The second quarter played out very much the same as the first. The careless turnovers continued but the missed layups were replaced by missed free throws.  Boise scored the last 5 points of the half and went into the locker room leading 28-21.  

The Rams had delivered a clinic on the defensive end, holding the Broncos to 27.6% shooting. They trailed because 6 of Boise’s 8 field goals were three-pointers. The Rams were 0-10 from beyond the arc (many of them missing badly), 5-9 from the free throw line and had committed 8 turnovers.  As good as they had been on the defensive end, they were a train wreck offensively.

And yet there was still belief.

And when the Rams Sofie Tryggedsson nailed a three-ball to begin the second half there was hope that maybe, just maybe the Rams would escape their offensive funk.

Fools gold.

The Rams turned the ball over 5 times in the first 6 minutes of the half, missed a wide open layup, and shot 2-6 from the free throw line.

And yet they only trailed 37-33 as they were continuing to deliver on the defensive end.

Still hope.

Until Nystrom committed 3 fouls in the first 2+ minutes of the final frame, sending her to the bench. The Broncos pushed their lead to 41-34 and the game seemed to have slipped away. The Rams responded with some sticky D, a Callie Kaiser three-ball and a jumper by Elie Gustavsson and they pulled to 41-39.

Another Boise mini-run (in this game outscoring your opponent 5-2 over three minutes was a run) pushed the Boise lead back to 6.  A late rally got the Rams back within 2 but the Broncos calmly finished the game off at the free throw line. With the Rams trailing by 4 and the clock running out, it was appropriate that Ellen Nystrom turned the ball over as she tried to beat two defenders at the top of the key. It was her 6th and the 17th for the Rams.

They had held the Lady Broncos to 26.5% shooting and lost! 

They lost because they had shot 30% from the field, 14% from beyond the arc, and 53% from the free throw line. As already mentioned, the Rams turned the ball over 17 times, many of them unforced and purposeless.  Boise deserves credit for some of that with some solid ball pressure and collapsing D in the paint.  But the majority of it was on the Rams for as dialed in and focused they were in shutting Boise down, they were lost offensively.

And when it was all said and done on this New Year’s Eve afternoon, the winning streaks were ended and Boise had scored a famous road victory.

The season is still young, with 16 games remaining on the conference schedule and a return trip to Boise in the cards. 

They say its a marathon, not a sprint but the Rams stumbled badly on a sewer grate while Boise has their nose in front of the pack.  

Onward to the New Year!

Colorado State 66 – Seattle 62 (Women)

December 19, 2016

Led by Ellen Nystrom’s 33 points and 13 rebounds, the Rams fought their way to their 22nd consecutive home victory which set a new school record.

It wasnt artistic as the Rams started slowly and trailed 16-10 after the first quarter.  A 10-point run late in the second quarter, triggered by a pair of three-balls fro Stine Austgulen and Hannah Tvrdy, pushed the Rams into a 28-15 halftime lead and they never trailed again.

While they were sloppy in closing the game out after extending their lead to 14 early in the 4th quarter, the ladies did enough to win.

But this was really about one player who is arguably the second best player to ever don the Green and Gold behind only the great Becky Hammon.  Her 33 points were a career high as she scored at will, mostly through posting up smaller players.  Always known as a pass-first player, she has been forced into more of a scoring role in her senior year and she continues to show more and more with each game. Pull-up jumpers, lefty bankers, you name it and she’s got it in her arsenal.  

And it hasnt stopped her from being a premier passer of the ball as she proved when she made possibly her. prettiest assist to her fellow Swede Elie Gustavsson.  Nystrom had penetrated the lane from the left wing and felt pressure from a help defender. She knew Gustavsson was lurking along the baseline and Nystrom , with her back to Gustavsson, delivered a blind bounce pass for an easy layup.  

The 22 home wins in a row adds to Nystrom’s already stellar record in her 3+ years in Fort Collins.

Three MWC regular season titles

One MWC Tournament title and NCAA appearance

Two NIT appearances

School record 28-game winning streak.

All on her watch.

I’m a lucky fan who gets to watch her level of excellence night in and night out.  The Rams begin their run toward a 4th consecutive MWC title next week.  This year’s squad is still developing and it will most certainly be a challenge for them.  But with Ellen Nystrom leading the way, anything is possible for these Lady Rams.

Eileen Nystrom has only 9 more scheduled games in Moby Arena.  I suggest you come out and see her as much as possible.