Swedish star helps put No. 22 Colorado St. back on hoops map
Swedish do-everything guard Ellen Nystrom knew next-to-nothing about Colorado State before taking her smooth jumper to Fort Collins.
The junior wasn't even aware that Becky Hammon, one of her favorite pro players growing up, was a former Rams standout until arriving on campus a few years ago.
Now, Nystrom is being mentioned in the same sentence as Hammon. What's more, the Rams are drawing the kind of attention they haven't garnered since Hammon's time on campus. They're climbing in the AP poll - No. 22 this week - have a school-record 23-game winning streak and are looking to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
All with the help of a player who nearly skipped college to go pro early in Europe.
''We were like, `Might as well try (college). We can always go home if it doesn't work out,''' Nystrom laughed in a phone interview.
It's certainly worked out. She's on pace to reach 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists by midway through next season, which is something that's never been accomplished in Colorado State women's history.
In addition, the 6-foot-1 Nystrom is just 15 assists away from moving into the school's top-three for a single season. Currently with 143 and a handful of games left, she could possibly break the school record of 174 by Hammon in 1998-99.
That she's even drawing comparisons to Hammon - currently an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs - is beyond flattering to Nystrom.
''She's known all over the world,'' said Nystrom, who's from Lulea, Sweden. ''It's definitely an honor.''
So was this: Listening to Hammon's motivational speech when the longtime WNBA great met with the team in the fall. Hammon, who still holds nearly two dozen Colorado State records, simply told them to embrace the moment. The message hit the mark as the Rams (26-1, 16-0 Mountain West) have clinched at least a share of their third-straight conference title.
''Ever since the Becky Hammon Era, there hasn't been all that much notice with this program,'' Nystrom said. ''Now, people are starting to get to know that we're actually good.''
Nystrom is part of a wave of European players who've arrived at Colorado State and helped put the program back on the basketball map. There are currently eight players from Europe - along with another from Brazil - on the roster, with Nystrom and Sweden's Elin Gustavsson two of four Colorado State players averaging double figures in scoring this season.
''When we took the job, we wanted to elevate the program quickly. In order to do that, we had to be different and had to recruit different,'' Colorado State coach Ryun Williams said. ''We just happened to land the right kids. There are now a lot of people that want to come to Colorado State.
''They know we take really good care of them. They have a great time at Colorado State. That word is spreading.''
Almost instantly, this team knew there was something special. From the opening preseason drill, even.
''Just because of how competitive we are with each other,'' Nystrom said. ''Now, we've come to the point where we just don't want to lose. We know how good we are so we want to keep it up.''
This is a difficult team to defend since everyone is pretty much able to play anywhere on the floor. Take Nystrom for example: She's a point guard who also plays shooting guard. In some schemes, she's also a small or power forward.
''It helps us a lot with fast breaks because we can get going,'' Nystrom said.
Because of the time difference in Sweden, her parents typically watch her Colorado State games the next day over breakfast. And while she used to get home sick - especially for Swedish chocolate - that's no longer the case. These days when she goes home, she often misses the school she used to know nothing about.
''My whole life is here now,'' said Nystrom, a business marketing major.
Her future aspirations? Playing pro basketball, of course. But that can wait. The only thing on her mind at the moment is the NCAA Tournament.
''That's something we've been thinking about all year,'' Nystrom said. ''That's where we are headed.''