Koby (McEwen) won’t practice until Wednesday just as a precaution. —Utah State head coach Tim Duryea
LOGAN — Like interim Colorado State head coach Jase Herl, Utah State head coach Tim Duryea was born in Kansas and served as the head coach of a junior college program in the Sunflower State, in addition to spending time in Fort Collins as an assistant coach for the Rams.
But that’s pretty much where the similarities end as No. 7 seed Utah State (15-16 overall, 8-10 in the Mountain West) and No. 10 seed Colorado State (11-20, 4-14) prepare to face off at 2:30 p.m. MST Wednesday in the first round of the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas.
“It’s a tough spot for him; I feel bad for him,” Duryea said of Herl, who has been guiding the Rams’ program in the wake of the awkward departure of former Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy.
“Jase is a good, young coach. He came there a couple of years ago to recruit and to learn from Larry, and he had no idea it was going to be so topsy-turvy. I have a lot of empathy for him.”
Eustachy, who also coached at Utah State from 1993-98, was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 3 so CSU athletic director Joe Parker could conduct a “climate assessment” of the Rams’ program. That left longtime Eustachy assistant Steve Barnes as the acting head coach, but after two games, Parker placed Barnes on leave, as well.
The interim head coach title then fell on Herl, whose only previous head coaching experience came as the first-ever coach at Northwest Kansas Technical College. In addition to the drama surrounding Eustachy, who officially resigned on Feb. 26, Herl and the Rams have also had to deal with injuries to key players on their way to losing 11 of their last 12 games.
“Having never been involved with anything like that, I can’t imagine, as a player, what that turmoil would do to you and how hard it would be to keep your group together and keep your group going forward,” Duryea said. “They’re basically on their third head coach of the season, and I can’t imagine how tough that would be. I don’t think it’s real surprising that they’ve had some uneven results here toward the end of the year.”
Despite Colorado State’s historic travails, Utah State isn’t exactly a clear-cut favorite heading into Wednesday’s game at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Aggies lost four straight games prior to last Saturday’s victory over UNLV at the Spectrum, and the Rams clobbered Utah State, 84-75, on Jan. 10 in Logan.
In addition, sophomore point guard Koby McEwen is a bit of a question mark after suffering a groin injury in the 79-67 win over the Rebels.
“Koby won’t practice until Wednesday just as a precaution,” Duryea said. “It’s a strained groin, and anytime you have a muscle strain, any movement, one wrong step can aggravate it. So, we’re trying to be really cautious, hoping we have multiple games on back-to-back days with him, so we’re taking a cautious approach.”
Although he missed eight minutes in the second half of Saturday’s game while receiving treatment, McEwen ended up finishing the contest with a team-high 18 points. Sophomore shooting guard Sam Merrill, who has been battling a leg injury, scored 15 points in 33 minutes.
Merrill (16.1 points per game, third in the league in 3-point percentage at .466) and McEwen (15.3 ppg) were both tabbed as third-team All-Mountain West selections on Tuesday, while sophomore forward Nico Carvacho was the Rams’ lone all-conference pick after leading the Mountain West in rebounding with 10.3 boards per game.
Junior guard Prentiss Nixon leads the Rams in scoring at 16.2 ppg, and put up a game-high 26 points in CSU’s win at Utah State.
“Prentiss Nixon seems to really play well against us,” Duryea noted. “He got hurt early in the game, and then came back and made four or five tough threes after his early game injury. That’s kind of the common denominator the last two or three games that they’ve played really well. He’s hit a lot of tough, contested 3-point shots against us. Obviously, we have to do the job on him.”
J.D. Paige only had five points in Colorado State’s third straight win over the Aggies, but defensively, the junior guard played a big role in McEwen having an off night (5 for 17 from the floor, 1 for 8 from 3-point range, 11 points). However, Paige’s availability for Wednesday’s game is unknown. After missing six games due to a broken bone in his non-shooting hand, Paige was given an indefinite suspension for a violation of team rules and missed the Rams’ final two games of the regular season.
The winner of Wednesday’s game will face No. 2 seed Boise State (23-7, 13-5) at 7 p.m. MST Thursday. The Aggies split the season series with the Broncos, losing 71-67, on Jan. 17 in Boise, and upsetting BSU 71-65, on Feb. 10 in Logan.