In order to be considered a “sleeper” in the NCAA Tournament, a college basketball team must be seeded No. 4 or lower, and it’s likely they won’t receive the recognition they deserve.
The Colorado State Rams are definitely a sleeper in this year’s March Madness, ESPN’s Mike Wilbon said so himself on Monday, and here’s why.
For CSU, it all starts with head coach Larry Eustachy. Eustachy’s wisdom comes from 23 years of coaching college basketball, and with it, he’s been able to mold the Rams into his team. Colorado State has taken on a completely different identity this season compared to in years past where rebounding and defense take priority over scoring.
The Rams became the nation’s best rebounding team this season, as seniors were asked to change their games and work together to control the paint on both ends of the floor. Defensively, Eustachy demands demonstrative effort, and he’ll call a quick timeout to chastise his players if they’re not getting the message. Together, CSU becomes a difficult team to score against as possessions become limited.
Offensively, the seasoned coach has worked with his talent to maximize their potential. He knows feeding big man Colton Iverson down low is a recipe for success, as is their constant ball movement. And Iverson, as well as ferocious forward Pierce Hornung, have to hit the offensive glass, earning easy put-backs at the iron for the Rams to put up their Mountain West Conference leading 73.6 points per game.
Eustachy’s leadership is key, and he’s a huge reason why Colorado State is a sleeper; a team that can do damage in the big dance. This is the fourth team he’s taken to the NCAAs, and in 2000, he led the Iowa State Cyclones all the way to the Elite Eight. A run that deep for CSU would be the furthest they’ve ever been in the tourney, and however unlikely it seems, the opportunity is there.
The Rams boast five senior starters, making them the third-most experienced team in the nation. With that longevity comes chemistry and the value of past lessons learned.
For Dorian Green, Wes Eikmeier, Greg Smith and Hornung, it’s the fourth straight year they’ve earned a postseason berth. That includes making to the NCAAs last season, only to be bounced out in their first game. Last year, it seemed the entire situation overwhelmed Colorado State; they played their worst game of the season in the most important contest and were blown out by the Murray State Racers 58-41. The Rams’ 41 points was their lowest output of the year, and the 21 total turnovers were a major reason why they couldn’t score that day.
This time around, they know what to expect. The bright lights will be shining, the crowd will be electric, the national TV cameras will be pointed squarely on them.
And maybe most importantly, the green and gold are simply an improved team compared to last year.
Beyond rebounding relentlessly, they are one of the most efficient halfcourt squads in the nation and are at their best when multiple players share the rock to find the best shot possible. Starting point guard Green is the offensive catalyst, knowing when to set up his teammates and when to score himself. Green’s a great outside shooter and quicker than he looks off the dribble, scoring 12.8 points per game with 3.8 dimes per.
But Green’s health is a concern, as he sprained an ankle in the regular season finale and was certainly less than 100 percent in Colorado State’s second round MW Tournament loss to the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels Friday. He insists he’s fine, and that he’ll be ready to go Thursday for the Rams first round NCAA game against the Missouri Tigers. Without Green, the Rams’ hopes of winning even one game in the big dance basically evaporate. With him, they could go deep.
Of course, the first game against Mizzou won’t be a walk in the park. The Tigers actually average more boards per game than do the Rams, at 41.4-40.4, meaning CSU must work even harder than usual to secure the rock when it bounces off the rim. If they can beat Missouri, it would almost certainly mean a matchup against No. 1 seed Louisville Cardinals, who many say could win the entire tournament. Still, which Louisville team shows up is anyone’s guess, and Colorado State is one of the more disciplined teams, meaning the Rams could actually upset the Cardinals.
What happens next is up in the air, just like the basketball will be at 7:20 p.m. Mountain on Thursday when CSU and Missouri tip off. The game takes place in Lexington, KY and will be televised on TBS.