LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Lately the question has been unavoidable, trailing Colorado State guard Dorian Green like a dogged Mountain West defender into his every media interaction since he left the Rams' regular-season finale against Nevada with a right ankle sprain: How's your ankle feeling?
Against Missouri on Thursday night, Green did his best to preemptively answer on the court, scoring 17 of his season-high 26 points in the first half of an 84-72 win over Missouri that the Rams controlled from the early stages and never relinquished. Four or five daily, half-hour stretching sessions—including one before the game in his hotel room—paid dividends as Green drilled a trio of first-half three-pointers. He ultimately played nearly twice as many minutes (34) as he mustered in the Rams' conference tournament loss to UNLV last Friday (18), his only in-game action since the injury. So when the inevitable inquiry about his ankle came in the post-game press conference, Green smiled.
"When you make shots," he said, "it feels a lot better."
This NCAA tournament experience altogether has felt a lot better for the Rams, who as a No. 11 seed last year were dispatched 57-41 by Murray State in their opener. Green missed all six of his field-goal attempts in that game, after which the Rams went from happy-to-be-there to ruing an opportunity lost.
“It’s a 180-degree difference," said senior forward Pierce Hornung, who finished with six points and eight rebounds against the Tigers and is one of four starters who returned after last season. "Last year, we had a bad taste in our mouth and didn’t get a chance to get our game on the floor, to show what Colorado State was all about. We really wanted to remedy that this year.”
What the Rams are about this year is rebounding, an emphasis first-year coach Larry Eustachy—who with Thursday's victory got his first NCAA tournament win since leading Iowa State to the Elite Eight in 2000—made clear as soon as he arrived in Fort Collins. It has been drilled into the Rams with, well, drills, a cyclical regimen of various boxing-out exercises repeated at the beginning of every team practice. Some of those early sessions would last three hours, senior Colton Iverson said. "But we got through those, bloody, sweaty, and we're better for it now," he added.
The results that were clear all season, when the Rams ranked second nationally in offensive rebounding rate (41.8%) and first on the defensive boards (where opponents grabbed just 23.3%), were made crystalline against Missouri, which entered the game ranked seventh itself on the offensive glass. The Tigers had a clear size advantage—its effective height, a KenPom.com stat weighing team size by playing time, is 46th nationally, while Colorado State ranks 246th—but the tale of the tape was inverted in the box score, where the Rams grabbed 42 boards to Missouri's 19. Iverson, a 6-foot-11 center who is the lone Rams regular over 6-6, grabbed 13 in 23 foul-plagued minutes. Hornung, a 6-5, 210-pound forward, had eight rebounds while battling the Tigers' 6-8, 255-pound Alex Oriakhi and 6-9, 227-pound Laurence Bowers; the two of them combined for six, which happened to be the same number Jon Octeus, a 6-4, 170-pound sophomore guard, had off the Rams' bench.
"The way we play gave them fits," said 6-3 guard Wes Eiekmeier, who chipped in three rebounds of his own. "They're a top rebounding team, but unless you really prepare for the way we go at the boards, it's hard."
The Rams' reward is a date with No. 1 overall seed Louisville on Saturday. In their 79-48 thumping of 16th-seeded North Carolina A&T, the Cardinals did nothing to dissuade the hordes who have hopped aboard their bandwagon as tourney favorites, turning the Aggies over 25 times in a game they won going away. Louisville has the nation's most efficient defense, two first-team All-Big East players in guard Russ Smith and center Gorgui Dieng, a Hall of Fame coach, and a flock of fans who made the drive east to turn Rupp Arena red. In the locker room after the Rams' win Thursday, Hornung was asked by a local reporter whether the rebounding that so thoroughly propelled Colorado State past Missouri will be an equalizer against Louisville. "It's a start," Hornung said. They will need it.