Change is coming to CSU men’s basketball team, and it promises to make the 2002-2003 season one to remember.
Eight players return from last year’s team, which went 12-18 overall and 3-11 in Mountain West Conference play, and head coach Dale Layer said each one is looking better and more mature than in the past.
“Overall the team has showed improvement from week-to-week,” Layer said. “We hope to build on overall maturity as the season progresses.”
After winning a mere three games in the Mountain West last season, the once-plodding Rams are now implementing a more up-tempo style of play.
“We have more depth and experience this season,” said senior shooting guard Andy Birley, who led the Rams with 80 three-pointers last season while shooting 42.3% from 3-point range. “We’re more athletic and will look to take advantage of that.”
Apart from the senior Birley, the Rams also expect to see big things from returning seniors Brian Greene, Ronnie Clark and Quantone Smith.
“We look for Brian to provide a lot of things,” Layer said of the 6-foot-8 forward. “He’s our leading scorer and rebounder, and our best defender.”
Layer added that he hopes Greene can build on last year’s season, in which he was named to the All-Mountain West Conference second-team after averaging 16.2 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game.
As for Birley, Layer said during the course of a game, the amount of looks the Rams free up for the 6-3 shooting guard can either elevate or deteriorate their chances of winning.
“Andy has started for one and a half seasons now,” Layer said. “He’s a winner who understands what we are trying to do. We need him for his outside shot. … When he shoots well, we play well.”
Birley clarified those remarks saying: “it reflects how we play as a team. I get my shots in the flow of the offense. So if I’m getting open looks, it means our offense is moving well.”
After spending most of last season getting into the flow of the offense, both Clark and Smith said they are ready to make an impact in their respective roles.
“I stayed up here the whole summer working out and I think that was helpful,” said the 6-foot-5 Clark, who averaged 7.1 ppg in 15 games last season. “I just want to do whatever it takes to get us some wins.”
As for Smith, who played sparingly in 30 games last season, Layer said the 6-8 forward could be the player to watch this season.
“He spent last year figuring out his role on the team,” Layer said. “He is one of the most improved players on the team.”
Though there’s leadership and experience abound on the team, the biggest boost for the Rams may come from a pair of players who were not even in Fort Collins last season.
Freshmen Michael Morris, a guard from Cinco Ranch High School in Katy, Texas, and Shelton Johnson, a small forward out of Oakridge High School in Arlington, Texas, put their talent on display Monday night in Moby Arena during a 97-79 exhibition win over Athletes in Action.
While starting at point guard, the 6-3 Morris scored 13 points, hitting 5-of-6 shots and dishing out 13 assists. Through his aggressive style of play, Morris has managed to garner the team’s vacant starting point guard position, at least for now.
“Michael is our starter at the point right now,” Layer said. “He’s explosive and knows how to run…we’ll leave him in there until we feel like somebody is playing better.”
The 6-3 Johnson also made his presence felt in the game as he came off the bench to score 15 points while hitting 6-of-7 shot attempts.
“In Johnson we have a terrific rebounder and a great defender,” Layer said. “(Morris and Johnson) give us a pair of athletic players who can force the tempo. … We expect quality minutes from both this year.”
Not to be overlooked in all the early season hype for the Rams, is the player who is impossible to look over: 7-foot center Matt Nelson. After starting off slow last year, the sophomore from Morton Grove, Ill., looks to continue his late season success from 2001-2002.
“Matt was arguably the best true low-post player in the Mountain West the last part of the season last year,” Layer said. “He posses a threat for opponents with his size and touch.”
Though the roster has not changed much, the style of play has. And win or lose these Rams should be fun to watch.
Edited by Jon Ackerman and Josh Hardin