LEXINGTON, Ky.—Larry Eustachy is back in the NCAA tournament with yet another team.
The coach is making his second-consecutive appearance in the tournament, this year with Colorado State - the fourth team he’s led to the NCAAs. Last year, he guided Southern Mississippi to the tournament.
Colorado State (25-8) is back thanks to Eustachy, and senior transfer Colton Iverson. After averaging just over five points a game in three years at Minnesota, the forward/center is averaging 14.7 per points contest to help lead the eighth-seeded Rams into Thursday’s second-round Midwest Regional game against No. 9 seed Missouri (23-10).
Eustachy, 57, has also taken Iowa State and Utah State to the NCAA tournament, and the Rams’ return to the postseason is an indication of how well his latest move is going - albeit not easy.
“This is my fifth time at being a first-year coach at this level and this has been the most difficult, if you will, as far as expectations,” said Eustachy, who has also taken Utah State, Iowa State and Southern Miss to the NCAA postseason.
“If you polled the people in Fort Collins whether this team will not go to the tournament or go to the Final Four, and had to check one box, they would check the Final Four. The expectations were not realistic. I think we met those expectations, which means we’ve overachieved. I said, ‘give me time, guys, and I’ll figure it out.’”
The Rams finally got on the same page in January.
Though it took a while, Eustachy had a lot to work with. The Rams returned five seniors, including three starters, from a team that went 20-12 under Tim Miles (now at Nebraska). Colorado State reached the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament before being upset by Murray State.
This year’s key addition has been Iverson, eligible this season after sitting out a year because of NCAA transfer rules. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder has been the inside force the Rams needed, adding team highs of 9.8 rebounds and 22 blocks.
Iverson started 42 of 91 games with the Golden Gophers but averaged just 5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds. He’s clearly more comfortable with the Rams and Eustachy’s system, where rebounding and defense are priorities.
“It’s definitely helped my game a lot,” Iverson said. “I took a pretty big risk leaving Minnesota after three years. I knew during my redshirt year I really had to work hard and improve my game. I definitely did that, and you can see the improvement this year.”
Iverson has scoring help in guards Wes Eikmeier (12.7 points) and Dorian Green (12.8 points, 122 assists) and forward Greg Smith (11.1). But the South Dakota native has been the presence the Rams needed: they’re outrebounding opponents by a nation-leading average of 12 a game.
“He has completely transformed our team,” Eikmeier said. “Last year we were pretty thin on the front line and didn’t have a whole lot of depth. We’ve all been witness to the season he’s had. ... We couldn’t ask for a better addition.”
Colorado State will need contributions on both ends against Missouri, averaging 76.2 points per game and making its fifth straight NCAA appearance. The Tigers had one of the Southeastern Conference’s top offenses this season, and all five starters average at least 11 points a game.
Laurence Bowers (14.4 points) is the leader, but the player drawing the most attention is junior guard Phil Pressey (11.6 points, 7.1 assists). He has tended to make mistakes in key moments and struggled away from home.
Pressey’s teammates and coach Frank Haith still believe in the 5-7 playmaker.
“I want him to still be confident in what he does and how he plays,” Haith said. “I was watching video of last year’s team and he had some moments when he played with such great bursts. He really hasn’t done that as much this year, and we need him to get back to playing with bursts on missed shots and just taking off.
“He’s been more probing this year, and we need him utilizing his speed.”
Both teams have faced challenges in finishing games but relish the new start that comes with their first game in the NCAA tournament.