On January 6, I admittedly wrote off the 2016-17 Colorado State men’s basketball season.
CSU had just squeaked past a weak San Jose State team 76-71 two nights before and head coach Larry Eustachy announced that three key members to the team (Devocio Butler, Che Bob and Kimani Jackson) would all be suspended the remainder of the season due to academics. The Rams had lost four of five games, including back-to-back defeats against two awful California squads in Long Beach State and Loyola Marymount.
It was easy to say that Colorado State’s season had conveniently come to a conclusion: The Rams were done.
CSU went 1-2 in its next three games, the only win coming in a blowout against Air Force. Six games into the conference season, and all of the Rams’ three victories were against the clear bottom pack of the MWC; UNLV, San Jose and Air Force.
And then, the Rams gained momentum.
Here on February 27, Colorado State is tied atop the Mountain West standings at 12-4, and could capture its first-ever MWC title with a win in Reno against Nevada on Saturday. According to Haslametrics, a college basketball analytical website ran by Erik Haslam, CSU currently ranks 3rd in the nation in momentum, a stat given to team’s recent play.
How did the Rams do it?
Resiliency. Lots and lots of resiliency.
Just over 13 months ago, CSU star guard Gian Clavell, who was third in the conference in points per game, was ruled out for season after 10 games due to a hand injury.
Because Clavell was classified as a senior last season, he had to send a medical hardship waiver to the NCAA in hopes of any possibility of playing one more year at the collegiate level. Not until July did Clavell receive the news that the NCAA had granted his waiver, allowing one of the nation’s oldest players to return for a CSU encore.
His return to the court did not go as planned.
It was announced just hours prior to Colorado State’s season opener that Clavell had been arrested for the second time in a domestic violence-related act. Though it’s not my duty to dive deep into these two cases (which both have since been dropped), Clavell’s consistent difficulty of remaining on the court has been an issue for Colorado State and thus should be noted.
When he is on the hardwood, however, he’s easily one of the elite players in this conference. Maybe even the best.
Clavell is averaging 18.9 points per game to go with 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.9 steals this season, and twice has helped manufacture double-digit comebacks over San Diego State. He’s more than just those numbers, though. Because of CSU’s shortened lineup, Clavell has logged 38 or more minutes in seven games this season and 35+ in 16 of his 20 appearances. He can heat up immediately on offense, create on his way to the basket, lock down on defense and also create turnovers and bad shot attempts. He’s the most well-rounded player in the league.
His wing man, Emmanuel Omogbo, who hit the decisive game-winner in Saturday’s win below, has also faced his share of adversity en route to becoming half of the best duo in the Mountain West.
Emmanuel Omogbo's game-winning 3 to beat San Diego State pic.twitter.com/OgBAZqsbyP— Sean Star (@seanvstar) February 26, 2017
The photo used for this article above was taken shortly after Colorado State’s win Saturday, after Omogbo was helped to his feet by his teammates after dedicating his game-winning basket to his late parents and nieces, who had tragically passed in a house fire last January in Maryland.
Omogbo has been just as vital to CSU’s success as Clavell. The Nigerian native has recorded 17 double-doubles to date, and was one rebound short in two other games. He is almost certain to finish the regular season averaging a double-double, joining elite Mountain West company.
His rebounding ability (Omogbo ranks 29th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage) has helped anchor CSU’s defensive possessions, which has been especially important in Colorado State’s grind-it-out matchups this year.
The Rams’ ability to shut down opponents late in games and create on offense is one of the reasons why CSU will be contending for a Mountain West title on Saturday.
The table below shows each of Colorado State’s 19 wins against D-I programs this year, including the largest deficit the Rams face and minimum win probability percentage, all according to KenPom.com.
Three double-digit comebacks may not seem like much, but as of two weeks ago, six top 25 teams had yet to record a comeback of 10 or more points.
If it weren’t for a game-winning Chandler Hutchison three-pointer in January 31st’s loss to Boise State, CSU would have been 5-0 in its last five games decided by five points or less. Colorado State has dropped both BSU games by a combined four points, but this is a different team down the stretch as of late.
This Rams club has been tossed every bit of adversity you could possibly imagine for a collegiate basketball team over the past year or so. Regardless, Larry Eustachy and Colorado State are no longer the mouse, but the cat in the Mountain West, as there is no squad in the league that would voluntarily face the Rams.
If CSU does manage to scratch out three wins in the MWC tournament next week, don’t expect Colorado State to be higher than a 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But do you really think they care?
Be sure to leave a comment below or tweet at @boettger_eli and @MWCConnection on Twitter.