FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The cohesion was instant at Colorado State, even with all the transfers and junior college additions.
That’s because of video game sessions in the locker room after practice. And bowling nights. And movie matinees. And watching fighter Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s last bout at the home of guard Gian Clavell, who whipped up his famed Puerto Rican chicken-and-rice dish his mom taught him to make.
The 24th-ranked Rams are a tight-knit group of overlooked vagabonds arriving from Arizona, Navy, North Carolina Central, Northwest Kansas Technical College, Southern Illinois and places in between.
They possess an attitude — picked fifth in the Mountain West preseason poll — and a savvy coach in Larry Eustachy who melds the pieces seamlessly together, helping the Rams (12-0) to their best start in school history. The Rams are one of eight remaining unbeaten teams heading into a game at New Mexico State on Saturday.
“The whole team is filled with chips on their shoulders,” said Stanton Kidd, a forward from Baltimore who transferred in from North Carolina Central. “Colorado State never gets the respect we deserve. But we don’t really care. We just want to win.”
It’s easy to see why the Rams didn’t receive a whole lot of preseason love: They had a largely unknown group.
Sure, senior sharp-shooter Daniel Bejarano was back, along with senior post player J.J. Avila, who played at Navy before his arrival at Colorado State last season. After that, no one really knew much about the Rams’ ensemble.
But they had three players in Tiel Daniels (Southern Illinois), John Gillon (Arkansas-Little Rock) and Stanton who practiced all last year even as they sat out under the NCAA transfer rule. So, they had a built-in familiarity.
Clavell, a junior college arrival from Caguas, Puerto Rico, fit right in as well, holding dinner parties for the team off the court as the team cooked on it.
“We don’t care who scores the most points or who got the most rebounds,” Bejarano said. “We have that feel of a brotherhood, of a family. We just find ways to win.”
Colorado State captured the Great Alaska Shootout title in November and turned heads with a 62-60 win at Colorado on Dec. 10. After a nail-biting 85-84 victory at Denver last week, the Rams appeared in the polls for the first time since February 2013.
It also marked the first time in school history that both the basketball and football programs made a Top 25 appearance in the same season. The football team finished 10-3 and recently replaced Jim McElwain, who left for Florida, with former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Eustachy knew this team had a chance to be special, because “it’s fun going to practice,” he said.
The good times don’t end there. The players go to movies, bowl and play video games as a team.
“That’s just us being us,” Bejarano said. “That closeness shows up in the games, too.”
— Stanton Kidd
Colorado State marches to the beat of Bejarano, a second-team all-Mountain West player a season ago. He began his career at Arizona, only to transfer to Fort Collins after things didn’t work out in Tucson.
The topic remains a sore subject.
“At Arizona, I don’t think I got a shot. I was told I couldn’t play defense, couldn’t play Division I,” Bejarano said. “That’s a lot of motivation. Coach Eustachy has impacted my life. He’s bonded us together.”
Eustachy knows about second chances. He resigned from Iowa State in 2003 after pictures of the coach partying with students surfaced and went into rehabilitation to treat alcoholism.
He resurrected his career at Southern Mississippi then joined Colorado State in 2012, the third and fourth schools he’s taken to the NCAA tournament.
Eustachy does his homework, finding players who will help the program, not hinder.
“Just because you make some mistakes in high school doesn’t mean you can’t correct them,” said Eustachy, who also has five players on the roster from Colorado and another from Regina, Saskatchewan. “We’ve taken transfers for one year and they’ve worked out well.”
Like Kidd, who started at South Plains College in Texas and then went to North Carolina Central, where he averaged 14.5 points in 2012-13. After a year out, he’s making up for lost time, scoring 12.5 points a game this season.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Where did this kid Stanton come from? Where did this kid Tiel Daniels come from? How did this kid Bejarano become such an all-around player?'” Kidd said. “It’s surprising to all of us, but at the same time it’s expected. We’re built on winning and we’re all buying in.”