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FORT COLLINS, CO. — On to the next one.
Air Force came into Moby Arena on Saturday afternoon and gave Colorado State a competitive game. The Falcons led for over 16 minutes of action and made things tough on the Rams who struggled to find a flow offensively in the early stages of the contest.
As head coach Niko Medved mentioned postgame, after not playing a real opponent for three weeks, it was clear that the team had some rust to shake off. But after a slow start out of the gate, the Rams managed to close the final couple of minutes on a 13-3 run to take a slim lead into halftime (28-24).
The Rams pretty much cruised for most of the second half, although Air Force did make it a two possession game with just under 10 minutes left to play. That said, the Rams quickly put an end to any hopes of a Falcons comeback with a 9-0 run of their own. Medved’s squad then proceeded to follow it up with another 13-1 run over the final 4:51 of action, cementing a 72-49 home victory for the Green & Gold.
When the final buzzer sounded there were four Rams that finished the afternoon with at least 10 points. Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy finished with 19 points apiece, pacing the Rams in scoring, while also leading the squad in another major category as well — the former in assists (4) and the latter in rebounds (8). Adam Thistlewood was smooth from the perimeter with 14 points on an efficient 4-of-7 shooting performance from 3-point land. And John Tonje led all bench players with 11 points in 25 minutes of action.
Here are a few takeaways from Game 1.
Shake it off, shake it off
It’s no surprise that CSU struggled to score early after not playing since the beginning of February. Going up against any Division 1 opponent in that situation would be challenging but when also factoring in a unique match up zone defense from Air Force, it makes sense that the Rams needed to get into the flow of the game before finding their success.
As Medved explained postgame, you can’t replicate what the Falcons do in a practice setting — at least not to the same degree.
“We ended up getting the result that we needed to have today,” Medved said. “We finished strong. Clearly it was far from a work of art and you could see some of the rust early. I think some of that is playing them in particular.”
Medved continued, explaining that the Princeton offense that Air Force runs is challenging on your defense due to all the ball reversals and how deep into the shot clock they consistently make you defend. He also explained that the match up zone the Falcons run is completely unique to Air Force as well.
“The way they just kinda randomly switch, pressure, do different things — sometimes it takes a little while to get a feel for it. I thought we started to get a better feel as the game went on. “
As a team CSU shot 41 percent from deep (9-of-22), 61 percent from the floor (25-of-41), and 81 percent from the charity stripe (13-of-16). The 61 percent shooting mark is CSU’s most efficient offensive showing this season — a good sign as the Rams head into an extremely difficult week with three games in five days.
Close down the bakery (too many turnovers)
While it was encouraging to see Isaiah Stevens and Adam Thistlewood find their groove from 3-point range, and David Roddy and John Tonje work their way in the paint, turnovers continue to be a problem for the Rams this season.
Despite winning by 23, CSU had 20 giveaways on Saturday afternoon, resulting in 13 points for the Falcons. So far this season, the Rams have committed at least 10 turnovers in all but two contests (CSU-Pueblo and Northern Arizona). What’s alarming, though, is that CSU has now committed 15+ turnovers in six of the last seven games. Even with a 5-2 record over that stretch, Medved knows his team must clean things up if they want to have any kind of consistent success.
“It’s like a broken record, we’re clearly going to have to be better taking care of the ball than we are, or it’s just not going to work out,” Medved said postgame. “But you’ve gotta give Air Force some credit for that. And it gives us something to shoot for and try to be better in that way on Monday night.”
Versatility is key
There are going to be times when the Rams need to lean on their big men — especially in the Mountain West Tournament — where rebounding, extra possessions, and defending the paint can be the difference between winning and losing a tight game. But it was a “small ball” lineup that had most of the success for CSU on Saturday, and it’s often been the small lineup that’s allowed CSU to increase tempo and/or go on big offensive runs this year.
One of the great things about this roster is the versatility of the group and how deep Medved can go into the rotation. There are nine players that are trustworthy of being on the floor in key moments — not just situations where the starters need to breathe — but the crucial possessions of a game. Obviously, you’d like to lean on your stars in the crunch time but as we saw up in Wyoming, sometimes a player like P.J. Byrd is going to have to save the day.
As we approach the most important stretch of the season, it honestly could be the depth and versatility of the roster that makes the ultimate difference for the Rams this year. There have been plenty of talented groups to come through Moby Arena over the years but very few have been as well constructed as this current Rams roster. It feels crazy saying that considering there aren’t any seniors on the roster but considering the Rams are off to their best 15-game start against the league ever, the results kinda speak for themselves.
After everything they’ve been through, this team deserves a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament and the metrics back it up. CSU ranks 43rd in NET and 66th in KenPom as of Monday morning. Ultimately, though, this young group is going to have to go out and take that opportunity by the reigns. We all know that the politics of college athletics favor the big brands, so if the Rams want a chance to do dancing, the best bet is to leave no doubts.
Next Up: Air Force Pt. II (Monday, 8:00 p.m. MT).