- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the next coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 that could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Colorado State Rams.
On Selection Sunday, there are really two goals. The first is obvious: Make the NCAA tournament.
The second may be a little more obscure but it’s every bit as critical: Don't be the team left out of the field that seemed like a surefire bet to make it.
In other words, don't be the Colorado State Rams in 2014-15.
Larry Eustachy’s crew finished 27-7, 13-5 in the Mountain West, with an RPI of 29 … and became only the fourth team with an RPI of 30 or better to miss the field, an ignominious distinction, to be certain. Colorado State, dejected and defeated, lost to South Dakota State in the first round of the NIT, ending the circuitous career of JJ Avila that began at Navy, wound its way to a job sawing mesquite and finally ended in a 1,000-point career in Boulder.
Getting over the NCAA rejection should be doable this season, maybe even an incentive for the Rams. Replacing Avila, as well as leading rebounder Daniel Bejarano and second-leading scorer Stanton Kidd, might not be quite so easy.
That trio represented the heart and soul for Colorado State’s record-setting season, one that opened with a 14-0 mark and ended as the best in school history – NCAA rejection or not.
Avila scored in double figures in 32 of 34 games last season and finished second in the Mountain West Conference in scoring. Bejarano, meantime, finished 16th in the league in rebounding and averaged 7.2 boards for the season, and Kidd added 11.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
No doubt Eustachy has made a quick mark on the Colorado State program, almost immediately making the Rams a contender in the always-competitive Mountain West. But they are not the only team on the rise (see Boise State) and now face their first rebuild/reboot challenge in Eustachy’s tenure.
What the immediate future holds: Are they ready, the guys who happily played smaller parts a year ago? That’s the question.
Clavell, who averaged 9.7 points per game, ranks as the leading returning scorer, while Daniels, with 4.8 boards, is the best returning rebounder. Gillon earned conference Sixth Man of the Year honors, and De Ciman was steady off the bench, chipping in 7.9 points per game.
But none has been asked to carry the load alone.
That’s not an unusual transition, of course. Every player goes through it; every program eventually has to regroup but doing it successfully is the challenge. The teams that maneuver without a hiccup tend to stick around long term, and that’s what Colorado State has to try to master this season.
Obviously the biggest void is in the frontcourt, where Eustachy has to replace Avila, Bejarano and Kidd.
But there are reinforcements coming in, and reinforcements with experience.
Eustachy wisely turned to the junior college ranks for immediate help, signing Emmanuel Omogbo in the fall and Kimani Jackson in the spring. Both rank among the top juco prospects in their class and will help fortify the frontcourt, where only Daniels has any experience.
Jackson, who will have three years of eligibility, averaged 8 points and 5.8 rebounds at New Mexico College. Omogbo, a second-team junior college All-American this past season, averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds, taking his South Plains College team to the juco national championship game.
Eustachy also gets some new blood in the backcourt in the form of Prentiss Nixon, a three-star combo guard out of Chicago. He spent his high school career going head to head with Jalen Brunson (now off to Villanova). Though Brunson earned more attention, plenty of analysts praised Nixon for his high motor and toughness. A McDonald’s All-American nominee, he averaged 18 points and 5 assists in his senior season.
That’s more than enough for Eustachy, a proven winner and near-genius rebuilder to work with, and certainly enough to continue the Rams’ run of postseason berths under his watch.
Is it NCAA tournament worthy? That’s harder to predict with so many new pieces, but as Colorado State knows better than anyone, you never quite know what is and isn’t NCAA tournament worthy.