FORT COLLINS, Colo. — No matter how winded he gets, Colorado State senior guard Gian Clavell never signals to come out of a game.
He can’t. There’s really no one to give him a breather.
The short-handed Rams (21-9, 13-4 Mountain West) have only seven players — eight if you count a seldom-used walk-on — after three others were declared academically ineligible in January.
It’s actually helped galvanize this team. They’ve won seven straight — the last two on jumpers in the closing seconds — and can earn their first regular-season division title since 1989-90 today at Nevada (24-6, 13-4).
“Wow, I wasn’t even born then,” said Clavell, whose team was in the Western Athletic Conference the last time they captured a league crown. “It’s in our hands. It’s whatever we want to do with it.”
To keep his players fresh, Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy has cut things short. Practice barely lasts an hour these days. Off days are frequent.
The one thing he doesn’t rein back is their aggressiveness. Since the truncated rotation began in mid-January, he’s had just six players foul out and only one occasion with two in the same game — a 79-76 loss to Boise State on Jan. 31 (their last defeat).
What Eustachy’s found is playing physical doesn’t necessarily translate into foul trouble.
“We preach the harder you play and the more physical you are, the less you foul,” Eustachy said. “When you’re really playing hard and in the right spots, the right position, you don’t put it in the refs’ hands.”
Lately, the starting crew of Emmanuel Omogbo, Clavell, Prentiss Nixon and J.D. Paige averages more than 30 minutes each (Nico Carvacho a little less). The two bench players — Anthony Bonner and Braden Koelliker — enter for anyone who may need a quick break.
Not many do.
Even when Clavell, the team’s leading scorer, was dealing with a cramp in his calf against San Diego State, he wouldn’t sub out. He wants to be on the court — no matter what. He gets his rest during timeouts. He will also take a swig of water when the other team shoots free throws.
After games, it’s all about ice baths and sleep. Clavell also meditates, which he credits for helping him avoid fatigue.
“I don’t see how he does it. He doesn’t get tired,” said Omogbo, who hit a game-winning 3-pointer in the waning seconds against the Aztecs on Feb. 25. “I sometimes switch up and guard a different guy, just so I can catch my rest. Or tell coach to sub me out so I can get a water break. I don’t stay on the bench more than two minutes.”
This has been quite a season for the resilient Rams, who’ve dealt with their share of obstacles:
Clavell sat out the opening nine games for a violation of the student-athlete code of conduct.
In January, Kimani Jackson, Che Bob and Devocio Butler were ruled ineligible for the spring semester. With them went 18.6 points a game in a combined 49 minutes.
On Jan. 14, New Mexico assistant coach Terrence Rencher and Omogbo got into a verbal spat outside Moby Arena that was caught on video by The Albuquerque Journal.
A recent report by the Fort Collins Coloradoan said the school looked into Eustachy in 2013-14 for creating an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” among his players.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity. A lot of negativity,” said Eustachy, whose team is looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since qualifying in his first season with the Rams in 2012-13. “We’ve stuck together as well as any team I’ve ever had.”
His players relish playing for him, with Clavell saying: “I would send my son to play for him. If he coached a girls’ team, I’d send my daughter. I would ride with him no matter what.”
Omogbo has grown close to Eustachy. The senior forward lost his parents along with his sister’s 2-year-old twins in a house fire back in Maryland on Jan. 19, 2016. Eustachy, his teammates and the community have been so supportive through the tragedy, which is why he’s calling this the “Thank-You” season.
“We work hard and we feel like if we work hard and keep fighting, something good is going to happen,” Omogbo said. “Because hard work always pays off.”
Given everything that’s gone on this season, including a game-winning shot by Nixon on Tuesday against Wyoming, Clavell was asked if this had the feel of a magical run.
“Not magical. It’s hard work,” Clavell said. “Everything we’ve been through — coach, seven players, myself — it’s motivation.”