The best rebounding team in college basketball isn't flush with blue-chip talent or anchored by a lottery-bound big man. It doesn't play in a Power Six conference and it doesn't boast a rich basketball pedigree. In fact, the best rebounding team in college basketball isn't even all that tall.
But like Charles Barkley once famously said, rebounding demands little more from its practitioners than a growling impulse to "go get the damn ball." And no one goes and gets the damn ball better than Larry Eustachy's Colorado State Rams.
Thanks in large part to their work along the boards, the Rams have consistently profiled as a top-25 team according to RPI, BPI and Ken Pomeroy's pythagorean win percentage metric. ESPN's Fran Fraschilla was so enamored with the Mountain West squad that he dubbed them one of his four "Surprise Final Four contenders" in a January 21 column, writing:
The Mountain West has a number of teams that, given the right set of circumstances, could get to the Final Four. This is the deepest the conference has ever been with quality teams and I have a sneaky suspicion that Larry Eustachy's team could be a difficult team to knock off in March.
Strange as it is to hear such high praise about a team picked to finish fourth in its own conference, there's reason to believe Colorado State's glass-crashing dominance could turn it into a bracket-busting menace come March.
Why They're Dangerous
1. The Rams Are Senior-Laden, with Multiple Returning Starters
With the aberrant success of last year's Kentucky team still fresh in the minds of many, we forget how beneficial experience can be in the NCAA tournament. Two of last year's Final Four participants—Kansas and Louisville—had three or more upperclassmen log starter's minutes. The year before, three of four teams fit that same roster profile.
Colorado State starts five seniors—Colton Iverson, Greg Smith, Dorian Green, Wes Eikmeier and Pierce Hornung—four of whom played major roles on the 2011 team that earned an NCAA No. 11 seed. Iverson, the lone exception, contributed to two tournament teams playing under Tubby Smith at Minnesota.
The Rams are the third-most experienced roster in Division I (per Pomeroy), and three of the team's five starters have been on campus since freshman year.
The cumulative effect of that shared growth is most notable on defense, an area where Colorado State rated just 174th in adjusted efficiency a year ago. This season, through the first half of conference play, only New Mexico is allowing fewer points per possession than the Rams.
And it's not just numbers.
Opponents and reporters alike are taking note of Colorado State's improved defensive toughness. After a January 16 loss in Fort Collins, Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich recounted the punishment doled out by this rugged, well-traveled Rams team in an interview with the Loveland Reporter-Herald:
They're physical, they've [sic] very strong, they play extremely hard. They came at us. They punched us, they punched us, they punched us."
2. Colorado State Is Battle-Tested in a Conference with a History of March Madness Success
Whether due to late start times, East Coast bias or whatever other theory you want to proffer, it seems the Mountain West Conference gets considerably less pub than its peers in the Power Six. But side-by-side, the MWC is as good, if not better, than the football conferences.
Whether you prefer Pomeroy's conference rankings or CBSSports.com's Conference RPI standings, the Mountain West has regularly performed better than leagues like the Big 12, SEC, Pac 12 and Atlantic 10 over the course of the 2012-13 campaign.
And it isn't a one-year anomaly.
In the past three seasons, the conference has produced 11 tournament bids, seven tournament wins, two Sweet Sixteen appearances and a national player of the year (BYU's Jimmer Fredette).
From that fray, Colorado State has shot by preseason co-favorites San Diego State and UNLV to emerge as one of the conference's best teams. And those that survive the Mountain West make for dangerous bracket busters.
3. The Rams Excel on the Boards
We've already alluded to Colorado State's rebounding prowess, but a bit of statistical context drives the point home.
Through the Rams' first 23 games of the 2012-13 season, they ranked first nationally in defensive rebounding percentage and second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. No other team was even top 10 in both categories.
This despite the fact that Colorado State is just 269th overall in effective height.
So, how does a smaller-than-average team dominate its opponents on the glass?
The answer starts with senior Pierce Hornung, a 6'5" standout from nearby Arvada, Colorado. One of the nation's top offensive rebounders, Hornung outclasses taller opponents with quickness, upper-body strength and what ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan calls "rare rebounders' intuition."
When asked about Hornung's game, Boise State coach Leon Rice told the Idaho Statesman, “He’s got world-class effort on the boards. He’s really, really, really strong and he’s got a nose for the ball. That kid is one of the best, if not the best, in college basketball right now.”
Another Rice went even further with his praise:
UNLV coach Dave Rice just compared Colorado State's Pierce Hornung to Dennis Rodman. #mwbb— Matt L. Stephens (@MattStephens) February 4, 2013
The Rodman comparison is holy grail stuff for undersized rebounders and gives you a sense of the impression Hornung leaves on opposing coaches.
Hornung couples perfectly with frontcourt mate Colton Iverson, a 6'10" Minnesota transfer who has owned the defensive glass all season long. Iverson, one of only two Rams above 6'6", is also a key cog in protecting the rim. Thanks to his presence in the paint, opponents are shooting considerably worse from inside the arc against Colorado State then they did last year.
Additional credit goes to Eustachy, whose recent work at Southern Mississppi speaks to his strategic predilection for rebounding. As Sports Illustrated scribe Andy Glockner points out, Colorado State has the ideal personnel for Eustachy's coaching philosophy.
Eustachy typically had strong glasseaters on both ends at USM, but he's inherited/molded the perfect rebounding storm in Fort Collins.— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) February 5, 2013
Put it all together and you have a team that ranks among the nation's elite in offensive efficiency, despite shooting an average mark from three and posting a ho-hum effective field goal percentage.
Turns out, when you get an extra dozen attempts a game—and take care of the ball, as Colorado State does—it's possible to patch over those flaws.
Teams Colorado State Could Beat in the NCAA Tournament
How far will Colorado State advance in March?
1. Michigan: If Colorado State nets an eight seed—as it did in Joe Lunardi's February 8 mock bracket—it could run into Michigan in Round 3. The Wolverines are a young team (340th in average experience) that struggles on the offensive glass relative to other title contenders. It's not hard to see the veteran Rams limiting them to one shot per possession and slipping by John Beilein's team.
2. Duke: The Blue Devils have plenty of veteran experience. What they don't have is enough reliable rebounders. Coach K's team is one of the ACC's worst in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
All statistics courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.