Transfer-laden Colorado State squad looks to rebound from disappointing 2013-14

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Larry Eustachy’s Rams went 16-16 last season (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Entering the 2013-14 season Larry Eustachy’s Colorado State Rams had quite the challenge in front of them. Gone were five starters, four of whom scored in double figures, who played key roles in the program making consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (2012 and 2013) for the first time since 1989-90. Predictably the Rams struggled, finishing the season with record of 16-16 overall and 7-11 in Mountain West play. Entering 2014-15, Colorado State’s roster includes six Division I transfers, and the hope is that this experienced group can deliver the program’s first regular season conference title since 1990 (shared the WAC title with BYU).

Transfers move from one program to another for a variety of reasons, but the schools that enjoy the most success with such players tend to have this in common: there’s no confusion about roles or expectations. That’s the case in Fort Collins, where Eustachy’s Rams will be led by two seniors who began their respective careers at different schools in Daniel Bejarano and J.J. Avila.

“Larry always knows what he’s doing, and he’s always been successful with transfers because they’re ready physically so he doesn’t really have to worry about things like that,” Bejarano told NBCSports.com last week. “They’re willing to work, and no offense to freshmen, but at the same time I think Larry wants guys who are ready to compete.

“Larry knows what he’s doing but at the same time you have to give credit to our assistants (associate head coach Leonard Perry and assistants Steve Barnes and Ross Hodge) as well because they work hard, and I appreciate them more than anything.”

Bejarano is entering his third season (on the court) at Colorado State, and he’s steadily become one of the Mountain West’s best guards. After winning Sixth Man of the Year honors in 2013 Bejarano took full advantage of the added responsibility in 2013-14, averaging 16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game and being named first team All-Mountain West at season’s end. As for Avila he averaged a team-best 16.6 points to go along with 7.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest.

Both will once once again be in a position to make plays offensively for the Rams, but the addition of four-year (meaning the institution, not eligibility) transfers John Gillon and Antwan Scott and junior college transfer Gian Clavell provides Colorado State with some welcome depth in this area.

CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Mountain West Preview

“I don’t need to have the ball in my hands as much as I did last season. We all can make plays,” Avila noted. “I can go set more screens and get my teammates open, which in turn gets me open too. We should be better offensively as a result.”

The perimeter newcomers will be key for a team that struggled shooting the basketball last season, as Colorado State finished the year ranked tenth in the Mountain West in both field goal (42.8 percent) and three-point percentage (32.6 percent). Of course the Rams were the second-best team in the conference from an efficiency standpoint, with their ability to hit the offensive glass and get to the foul line being key reasons why. But improved shooting could be the key for a team hoping to thrive in a conference race that has as many as seven realistic contenders.

Gillon shot 39.4 percent from beyond the arc in his lone season at UALR, and Scott made 39.2 percent of his attempts at Grambling as season ago. If those two can replicate those numbers in Colorado State’s system, things should open up for the Rams’ other scoring options.

Unlike Bejarano, who began his college career at Arizona, Avila made the move to Colorado State from a less successful program at Navy. What also made things difficult for the 6-foot-7 forward is that his year away from competition was spent without the benefit of any kind of structured basketball. Avila didn’t have the benefit of going through the practices and workouts that can be of high value to transfers in 2012-13, and it was during this period that Avila learned more about himself as a person.

“It was awful,” Avila told NBCSports.com. “I think it really taught me the value of self-discipline. I was in the gym and doing what I needed to do, but it isn’t the same as being in workouts and practices. I became more introspective as well, just understanding that things happen for a reason and remaining on track. I don’t wish that [time off] on anybody, but I’m here now.”

source: Getty Images
Daniel Bejarano (Getty Images)

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Avila and Bejarano were Colorado State’s best rebounders a season ago, leading the way for a team that ranked second in the Mountain West in offensive rebounding percentage (39.4 percent) and third in defensive rebounding percentage (73.1 percent). This year they’ll have more help on the glass, even with Gerson Santo out of eligibility and Jon Octeus having transferred to Purdue. Stanton Kidd, who averaged 14.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game at North Carolina Central in 2012-13, and Tiel Daniels (7.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg at Southern Illinois in 2012-13) give the Colorado State needed depth and experience in the front court with senior Marcus Holt also looking to factor into the rotation.

Even with last season’s results the formula hasn’t changed at Colorado State, and that’s what gives their surplus of newcomers a good shot at experiencing success. According to both Avila and Bejarano there’s a clear understanding of what’s expected, and for a player looking to get acclimated to a new program and new surroundings that can be invaluable. Colorado State has a total of nine players on its roster who arrived on campus via either another four-year school or a junior college, and balancing such rosters can be tough. However with their two leaders having gone through that experience themselves, Colorado State feels well-equipped to manage that as they look to win a Mountain West title.

“We’re going to have to gel together and we’re going to have to stick together, because we’re going to have some ups and downs and that’s what it’s all about in college basketball,” Bejarano said. “We’re going to be very successful this year and I’m very confident about that, it’s just all about going out there and doing it.

“A lot of people don’t have us winning [the Mountain West], finishing second, third, fifth or wherever, but none of that matters. What matters is [where you’re at] at the end of the season.”

2014-15 Season Preview: San Diego State leads what will be a wild Mountain West race

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source: Getty Images
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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we focus on the Mountain West.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Last season in the Mountain West provided some surprises, with the team picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll (San Diego State) winning the regular season title outright and Nevada finishing in a tie for third place after being picked to finish ninth last October. Seven teams won at least nine conference games in 2013-14, and heading into the 2014-15 season many hold the belief that seven teams have a realistic chance of winning the Mountain West. Steve Fisher’s team is seen as the favorites despite losing Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames, and the order of the next six teams is anyone’s guess.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Just one first team All-Mountain West selection returns: Thames, New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams, and Nevada’s Deonte Burton have all moved on to the professional ranks. The lone returnee: Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr., who missed the final seven games due to a torn ACL. Nance is back on the floor for the Cowboys, who are in that mix of teams looking to win the conference. If he hits the ground running, Larry Shyatt’s team is capable of contending.

2. The Mountain West also lost its top five rebounders: This fact can’t be glossed over, with UNLV losing Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch, Boise State moving on without Ryan Watkins, and San Diego State (Josh Davis) and New Mexico (Alex Kirk) also having to account for the loss of their best rebounders. However, it should be noted that each of these programs has added some solid front court talent in both the freshman and junior college ranks. And when it comes to Boise State, the Broncos got a lot taller inside after going through last season with just one player who stood 6-foot-8.

3. UNLV adds one of the nation’s top freshman classes, and a very important senior transfer: After briefly flirting with the possibility of moving across the country, Dave Rice returned to his alma mater, where he received a new contract and then put the finishing touches on one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Guard Rashad Vaughn may be seen as the jewel of the class, but there’s also big man Goodluck Okonoboh, forward Dwayne Morgan and guards Jordan Cornish and Patrick McCaw to consider as well. UNLV’s most important addition, however, is former San Francisco PG Cody Doolin, who gives them the on-court leader they so desperately needed a season ago.

4. UNLV wasn’t the only Mountain West program that landed a Top 20 recruiting class: Rivals.com ranked two Mountain West recruiting classes in the top 20 of its rankings this spring, with UNLV coming in fifth and San Diego State 17th. Steve Fisher’s class is one reason why many saw last season as a “bridge” year for the program, and we all saw what happened there (31-5, Sweet 16 appearance). Now they add guards Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell and forwards Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham, as well as Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, to an experienced cast led by Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien. SDSU’s deep, athletic and they’ll once again be tough to score points on.

5. Colorado State returns the top scoring tandem in the Mountain West: Forward J.J. Avila (16.6 ppg) and guard Daniel Bejarano (16.3 ppg) are back for their senior seasons, and they’re just two reasons why Larry Eustachy’s Rams will be in the middle of the Mountain West race. Both of those players began their college careers at other schools, and they’ll be joined by a deep group of transfers that includes guard John Gillon (UALR) and Antwan Scott (Grambling State), and forwards Tiel Daniels (Southern Illinois) and Stanton Kidd (North Carolina Central). Of those four three were with the CSU program last season (Scott’s the exception), which should help from a chemistry standpoint.

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming

source:
Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr. (AP Photo)

While it remains to be seen just how explosive Nance will be following the knee injury that ended his junior season, the fact of the matter is that he can affect the game in a variety of ways. Nance finished last season ranked in the top ten in the Mountain West in scoring (tenth- 15.4 ppg), rebounding (sixth- 8.6 rpg), field goal percentage (second- 54.4%), steals (fifth- 1.4 spg) and blocked shots (fourth- 2.1 bpg). He’s certainly capable of putting together a similar season in 2014-15.

THE REST OF THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM:

  • Anthony Drmic, Boise State: Averaged 15.9 ppg and 4.5 rpg last season, and he’s a better perimeter shooter than he showed as a junior (34.1% 3PT).
  • Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State: Bejarano followed up his Sixth Man of the Year award in 2013 with a first team All-Mountain West spot as a redshirt junior.
  • Winston Shepard, San Diego State: Shepard will be key for the Aztecs as they look to account for the loss of Xavier Thames. And if Shepard can make opponents at least respect his jump shot, look out.
  • J.J. Avila, Colorado State: Avila came in and earned third team all-conference honors in his first season at CSU, averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Dwayne Polee II, San Diego State
  • Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
  • Paul Watson, Fresno State
  • Derrick Marks, Boise State
  • Deshawn Delaney, New Mexico

BREAKOUT STAR: Dwayne Polee, San Diego State

Polee may have finished the season averaging 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, but he was a different player from February on. Polee scored in double figures in nine of SDSU’s final 14 games, including a stretch of five straight double-digit outings to end the season. And with Thames gone, there’s room for Polee to take another step forward production-wise.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: David Carter, Nevada

With Dave Rice landing a new deal at UNLV this summer and recruiting well, he’s in good shape for the time being. That brings us to Carter, who despite managing to finish tied for third in the conference last season led his team to an overall record of 15-17. Can the Wolf Pack once again surprise people within the league while also improving their overall record?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: Can multiple Mountain West teams reach the second weekend?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: How wide-open this conference race will be.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 17, Utah at San Diego State
  • November 21, UNLV vs. Stanford (in Brooklyn, New York)
  • November 22, Boise State at Wisconsin
  • December 10, Colorado State at Colorado
  • December 23, Arizona at UNLV

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @GeoffGrammer

PREDICTED FINISH

1. San Diego State: Xavier Thames is a big loss, but there’s still plenty of talent at Steve Fisher’s disposal.
2. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy’s roster is stocked full of transfers ready to contribute immediately.
3. Boise State: Drmic and Derrick Marks lead the way for a team that has more size than it did last season.
4. UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels are loaded with talent, but will the pieces fit together cohesively?
5. Wyoming: Larry Nance Jr. returns from his torn ACL, and guard Riley Grabau is back as well.
6. New Mexico: The Lobos have some questions to answer, but given their recent run of success it wouldn’t be a surprise if they made another run at the title.
7. Fresno State: Mountain West dark horse? That could be the case, with Julien Lewis joining a group led by Marvelle Harris and Paul Watson.
8. Nevada: The Wolf Pack have the unenviable task of accounting for the loss of electric PG Deonte Burton.
9. Air Force: Dave Pilipovich lost his leading scorer in Tre’ Coggins, but that trip to Colorado Springs can be a tough one.
10. Utah State: Stew Morrill’s system has always been tough to defend, but the personnel losses may be too much to overcome.
11. San Jose State: Another rough year for Dave Wojick, and the Spartans won’t play in the conference tournament either due to APR sanctions.

San Diego State voted to finish atop Mountain West Conference in 2014-2015

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San Diego State was voted the heavy favorite in the Mountain West Conference, which was announced, along with the preseason all-conference team, on Tuesday afternoon in conjunction with the start of the Mountain West Digital Tipoff.

The Aztecs were one-vote shy of becoming a unanimous choice to begin the 2014-2015 season. Last season, Steve Fisher guided his program to a 31-win season, a conference regular season title and an appearance in the Sweet 16. After the No. 1 spot in the preseason poll is where it gets interesting.

Boise State, the only other team to receive a first-place vote, was slotted second. However, in a conference as wide-open as the Mountain West, you can make the case that several teams could fit the bill at No. 2. The Broncos return the scoring prowess of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. UNLV has an inexperienced, but talented starting five. Fresno State has some young talent as well. Colorado State will rely on a group of returnees and eligible transfers. And Wyoming has arguable the league’s top player. New Mexico, reigning the conference tournament champion, still has key pieces despite the departure of three starters.

Here’s how the conference standings are projected:

  • San Diego State (34)
  • Boise State (1)
  • New Mexico
  • UNLV
  • Colorado State
  • Wyoming
  • Fresno State
  • Nevada
  • Air Force
  • Utah State
  • San Jose State

The first team was also announced. Winston Shepard and Dwayne Poole II of San Diego State, Anthony Dmiric of Boise State and Colorado State’s Daniel Bejarano were all named to the team. Larry Nance Jr., who is coming back from an ACL tear for Wyoming, rounded out the team and was also named the preseason player of the year.

Angelo Chol, the 6-foot-9 Arizona transfer, was voted newcomer of the year while UNLV freshman guard Rashad Vaughn, a five-star prospect, was selected as preseason freshman of the year.