The ball has been passed.
The CSU menâ€™s basketball team is now led by a junior class loaded with talent.
And while their on-court play will determine how they are ultimately remembered, their off-court relationship may be what they need to become one of the best groups in recent memory.
â€œWeâ€™re forced to be around each other 24/7,â€ Pierce Hornung said. â€œIf we didnâ€™t like each other, it wouldnâ€™t be a very fun experience. Everyone likes each other. Itâ€™s a good relationship on and off the floor. We hold each other accountable and make sure weâ€™re doing the right thing.â€
That closeness often isnâ€™t seen when teams are compiled through a recruiting process that brings in players from different parts of the country and from vastly different backgrounds.
But this squad, and this group of juniors, have closer connections than most.
Jesse Carr, Wes Eikmeier and Greg Smith are all from Nebraska. Carr and Eikmeier played on a Nebraska Bison AAU team together while Smith played for the same club on a team a year younger.
Hornung and Dorian Green came to campus at the same time. And Carr, who started as a freshman before sitting out a year injured, helped tutor Green while he started as a true freshman, in part because of Carr being hurt.
The juniors now look to replace the leadership and scoring ability of the graduated Andy Ogide, Adam Nigon, Travis Franklin and Andre McFarland.
And each player fulfills his own piece of the puzzle. Green is the engine that runs the team, while Hornung is the defensive and hustle man. Carr provides a spark off the bench. And Smith and Eikmeier will be relied upon to provide a lot of the scoring.
Neither Smith nor Eikmeier averaged more than 10 points per game last season but stepped up in two preseason games. Smith averaged 15 points while Eikmeier took the reign as top scorer, notching over 23 points per game.
For Eikmeier, that may be his role.
â€œIâ€™m just taking the good looks, being aggressive, doing what the coaches ask me to do,â€ Eikmeier said. â€œIâ€™m going to be aggressive, and our system allows that.â€
If the parts fall into place, they have the talent to help grow the team into one of the top programs in the Mountain West. And after appearances in the College Basketball Invitational followed by the National Tournament Invitational, they will look to take the final leap to the NCAA tournament.
â€œWhen we talked to these guys toward the end of their freshman year,â€ coach Tim Miles said. â€œI remember saying to Dorian and Greg and Pierce, â€˜Whenâ€™s the last CSU squad that had four straight postseason appearances? I donâ€™t know, but I know itâ€™s been a long time, and I want you guys to be that group.â€™ And theyâ€™re halfway through.â€
Assistant Sports Editor Kevin Lytle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.