On the surface, it was a season of disappointment.
But between the lines are many signs of optimism for the CSU men’s basketball team.
The Rams finished 12-18 overall, 3-11 in Mountain West Conference play, and claimed seventh place in an eight-team league. They lost in the first round of the conference tournament and joined last-place Air Force as the only MWC teams not to be invited to a postseason tournament.
But if there were standings for moral wins, CSU may very well be in first place. Eleven of the team’s 18 losses were by nine points or fewer.
The Rams seemed to play their best games against the better teams they faced. They took UW, the league’s regular season champion and furthest advancer in the NCAA Tournament, to overtime Feb. 9.
Utah, the league’s No. 2 seed, faced CSU three times this year and never found an easy win. The Utes came out on top by just five points Feb. 2 on their home court, won by 10 via last minute free throws Feb. 28 at Moby Arena, and were within inches of going to overtime with the Rams in the MWC Tournament. Utah’s 69-66 win March 7 officially ended CSU’s 2001-02 season.
But they weren’t all close losses. The Rams found two huge overtime wins against Michigan Feb. 11 and then against Brigham Young to close out the regular season March 2. CSU also knocked off Southern Illinois 80-62 Dec. 18, a team which is now in the Sweet 16 after upsets of Texas Tech and the Georgia.
So, all signs point up for 2002-03 as the Rams return 15 players while losing just one senior, Matt Brown, and will sport the best return rate in the MWC. CSU started the year with 10 new players and only three who had seen action the year before. The other seven MWC teams have a total of 27 seniors. San Diego State and UNLV each lose five seniors; Utah, UW and New Mexico four; Air Force three; and BYU two.
Repeatedly saying there wasn’t another group of guys he’d rather go to battle with, CSU head coach Dale Layer can’t help but be excited for next year. His three leading scorers, juniors Brian Greene and Andy Birley, and freshman center Matt Nelson will return for Layer’s third season.
Greene was the best all-around player for CSU this year, leading the team in both scoring and rebounding. He is currently on a streak of 26 straight games of scoring in double digits, the longest active streak of any MWC player. Of his 30 games this year, Greene scored 10 or more 28 times.
Greene’s 16.2 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game are both good for fifth in league, and earned him second team all-MWC honors. Greene was also second in the league in steals.
“Brian Greene is easily one of the two or three best players in the league,” Layer said.
Birley was the only other Ram to earn league honors as he was given honorable mention. He led the league in 3-pointers made (80, 2.67 per game) and was fifth in 3-point percentage (.423).
But a big indicator of how well CSU will do next year rides on the shoulders of the 7-foot Nelson. He was hampered by a dislocated toe for much of the season, but managed to average 14 points and five rebounds in 22 games. Making him tough to contain is his high field goal percentage (.613) and free throw percentage (.757), both tops on the team.
Then there’s his defense. Nelson’s 41 blocked shots this year are a CSU freshman record.
Moreover, two of Nelson’s best games were against Utah late in the season. His play in the conference tourney against Utah left Layer talking with high praise.
“I thought Matt Nelson was arguably the best player in the league today,” he said after the game.