This is a special time to be a Colorado State basketball fan.
The Rams have progressively improved for the last four straight seasons, participating in the postseason every year, including making it to the NCAA Tournament last March.
The rams return four senior starters, pushing expectations in Northern Colorado to new heights. It’s March Madness or bust this season in many fans’ eyes; undoubtedly, coaching and chemistry are key for CSU to meet those expectations.
For new head coach Larry Eustachy, tonight will mark his first official game on CSU’s sideline, though he’s already coached two exhibition wins over the Bahamas All-Stars and more recently, Metro State.
While those were valuable tune-ups, the Rams now face a highly competitive and capable Montana team at Moby Arena this evening. Last season, CSU hosted the Grizzlies in their first game too, with the Rams holding on to win 65-54. It turned out, the victory was a boost in Colorado State’s all-important RPI—the number needed to make March Madness—because Montana won 25 games and got into the big dance as well.
The Grizzlies hang their hat on stifling defense, allowing opponents to make only 40.5 percent of field goals while limiting them to a mere 62.0 points per game last year. Like CSU, Montana is experienced; with two seniors and three juniors the probable starters remembering how close they came to beating the Rams last November.
Senior Will Cherry is the team’s best overall player; he led in scoring (15.8) and steals (2.6), grabbing 3.9 rebounds and dishing 3.3 dimes per too, but luckily for CSU, he’s out with a broken foot. 6’7” forward Mathias Ward will be a difficult matchup for the shorter, but feistier Hornung, and Kareem Jamar (13.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) will be a tough test for Greg Smith.
Of course, it’s all about limiting opponents’ opportunities for the Grizzlies, a stark contrast to the Rams’ run-and-gun style. While it’s still unclear the style he wants his team to play offensively, they ran the floor relentlessly against Metro and Eustachy alluded to that being likely to continue this season.
For CSU, Dorian Green (PG), Wes Eikmeier (SG), Greg Smith (SF), Hornung (PF) and fifth-year senior transfer Colton Iverson (C) are the likely starters tonight. Eikmeier was the Mountain West Conference’s fourth leading scorer last season (15.5) while Green (13.1) wasn’t far behind. Hornung enjoyed the league’s highest true shooting percentage (65.4) and offensive rebound percentage (18.3), working tirelessly to grab boards and tip them into the hoop. In Smith, Rams will look for the small forward to finally step up and score a bit more, while Iverson could make the difference in this going from a good to great team. Iverson gives Colorado State what they lacked most last year, size, and at 6’10”, he’ll be a force on both the offensive and defensive ends.
Iverson is just one of a host of newcomers that will contribute in key ways this season, and there’s a good chance we’ll see four or five new faces tonight. Gerson Santo, a 6’9” junior, will certainly come in to allow Iverson some rest, and sophomore shooting guard Daniel Bejarano looks to be the team’s leading candidate for sixth man. Jon Octeus will play some as well, adding speed and incredible leaping ability to the backcourt when Green or Eikmeier sit. Eustachy said the team will go nine-deep this year after the Metro State win, which will only help keep fresh legs on the floor for running the break and playing physical defense.
Colorado State basketball was picked to finish fourth in the MWC this season, and if they want to have a chance to win the highly competitive conference and ultimately get into the NCAA Tournament again, this game looms large.
The action tips off at 7 p.m. MT at Moby Arena with free admission for students with a valid ID.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist. You can follow Rich on twitter or facebook for all your CSU Rams news and opinion.