It's time for Mountain West Conference play, and this year, that means outstanding opponents every game.
For Colorado State, their conference play began with a bang as they lost in overtime to San Diego State last Saturday, then the Rams abused Air Force 79-40 Wednesday night, setting school records for largest margin of victory over a conference foe and for their 23rd consecutive home win.
It was undoubtedly the team's most complete victory of the season, the best basketball they've played all year. Besides the quick start by the Falcons, the Rams controlled throughout by owning the paint as the senior frontcourt of Colton Iverson and Pierce Hornung muscled through Air Force's bigs.
Rewind to six weeks ago.
CSU was 6-0 to start the Larry Eustachy era heading into a huge rivalry game against Colorado in Boulder. A win would have done wonders for their confidence and RPI, but the Rams were “punked” as Iverson said following the contest. He couldn't do the damage down low he was used to earlier in the year and Colorado State fell down 42-23 at halftime, a deficit they couldn't overcome.
Eustachy said after the team's first loss, “Soft team, soft coach,” taking the responsibility of his players' folding on the road in the overwhelmingly loud Coors Events Center, and they lost their next game on the road to University of Illinois-Chicago as well.
The team bounced back – something Eustachy praised them for – but he also constantly complained about their lack of toughness even while his team ran off seven straight wins and set a school record for 13 non-conference victories this year.
Fast forward to Wednesday night; when Pierce Hornung was asked about the benefit of the Rams resting their starters for much of the second half in their biggest MW win in school history over Air Force Wednesday night, he looked at me like I was nuts.
The fire – that competitive flame that burns deep inside of Hornung – is undeniable.
“I mean, everyone on this team is competitive, we want to be out there for 40 minutes,” Hornung, the heart and soul of the Rams said.
The 6'5” senior power forward, who regularly goes against bigger, taller opponents and drives them crazy with his relentless nature, is a microcosm of CSU's toughness. He's always been their toughest player – catching elbows in the face from foes, diving on the ground for loose balls, playing through concussion-like symptoms – and his toughness has become infectious.
On Wednesday, Iverson bowled through multiple Falcons defenders on one play, with Air Force being called for the foul and the Rams center making not only the layup, but the and-one free throw as well. Fellow forwards Greg Smith and Daniel Bejarano have followed suit, boxing out big men, banging in the paint before grabbing boards that end opposing teams' possessions.
These Rams are the best rebounding team in the nation; their 14.5 rebounding margin is by far the top number in college basketball, one of Eustachy's philosophies the team has bought into.
“I told our team, on a given night this team could beat any team I've ever had, and that's saying something,” he said in the postgame presser Wednesday. “I believe in them that much. That's why it's so disappointing when it doesn't work.
“I've always loved our attitude. We're not afraid of anybody, we don't back down from anybody; just try to do our talking by our actions.”
When I asked him about that toughness he mentioned and how important it will be down the stretch of the season to get into a second straight NCAA Tournament, he responded, “That's everything. And we've gotten tougher. We can get even tougher.”
“The problem with the whole gameplan is that this team is better than last year's team,” Eustachy continued. “But, there isn't a team in our league that can't say the same thing. That's the problem. Who we play, where we have to play; wait 'til we have to go back to Air Force. You're trying to tell me they're just going to lay down? No.
“So, it's a very difficult league. And that's the problem with the situation; it's that, we are better, but UNLV is more talented than they were last year, I think I watched San Diego State and they're better this year, New Mexico is a better team. You just keep going on; what about Boise, what about Wyoming? Nevada's a good team. Fresno, I mean Fresno had San Diego State beat.
“We've got toughness and we're getting better at it. But we need to to have a chance,” he finished.
Every game, the veteran coach finds some reason to yell obscenities at his players, demanding effort while working to make them tougher.
And now Eustachy's Rams try that toughness against a tenacious team in No. 23 UNLV tonight inside Moby Arena at 5 p.m. MT.
Last season, Colorado State had to win all three home games against top-25 powerhouses UNLV, SDSU and New Mexico in order to get into March Madness and while they're ahead of last season's team in terms of wins and RPI, beating the big three will go a long way on their resume.
The Rams also put their 23 straight home winning streak on the line during the white-out game that is near selling out as of Friday night.
The bottom line is this; toughness is as toughness does.
If these Rams are indeed growing tougher, they'll win tonight against a very talented Rebels team.
More CSU Rams: