Each time new Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy devoted nearly an entire three-hour practice to rebounding drills during the preseason, senior center Colton Iverson admits he and his teammates couldn't wait for it to end.
They were bruised and bloodied from battling one-another during box-out drills and skidding across the floor after loose balls. They were exhausted from running sprints every time they didn't grab the ball with two hands or with a wide enough base. And they were perplexed at spending up to two hours, 50 minutes on rebounding when they had so many other areas to improve.
"I don't think there's any coach in the nation that stresses rebounding as much as Coach Eustachy does," Iverson said. "At the time it was definitely tough because you get beat up and fatigued. There were definitely some days you could tell guys were just trying to get through it because it was so difficult, but now, looking back I'm so happy we did do it."
The emphasis on rebounding indeed looks worthwhile now with Colorado State riding its dominance on the glass to a 26-game home win streak and the program's first Top 25 ranking in 59 years. The No. 24 Rams (19-4, 6-2) are merely one-half game behind first-place New Mexico in the Mountain West standings entering Wednesday night's home game against third-place San Diego State.
Eustachy goes out of his way to note there are many reasons for Colorado State's success, from a low turnover rate, to stingy half-court defense, to unusually good team chemistry. Nonetheless, he admits a major reason the Rams appear poised to return to the NCAA tournament for a second straight year is they get second and third opportunities to score on the offensive glass and limit opponents to one shot at the other end.
Colorado State leads the nation in rebounding percentage this season, a remarkable feat considering the Rams ranked 200th a year ago. They grab 42.1 percent of their misses on offense (third nationally) and 76.6 percent of their opponent's misses (first nationally), making them only the second team in the past decade to crack the top five in both categories, according to college hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy.
"Our rebounding is why we've won," Eustachy said. "We only spend so much time on it because we think it impacts winning. If it didn't impact winning, if it wasn't such a major factor in winning, we wouldn't spend so much time on it. That's what I've always believed, and my teams have always done it."
The secret to Colorado State's improved rebounding isn't anything gimmicky or unusual. The Rams simply have spent more time on rebounding in practice and have better interior personnel than they did a year ago.
Whereas last year's guard-oriented team featured a three-man frontcourt rotation of 6-foot-5 Pierce Hornung, 6-foot-6 Greg Smith and 6-foot-6 Will Bell, this year's team has a legitimate center who fills the void in the middle. Iverson, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound Minnesota transfer, has emerged as the Mountain West's premier traditional low-post player, scoring 13.8 points per game, grabbing 9.7 rebounds and preventing Hornung and Smith from having to play out of position at center.
Unhappy at Minnesota because his playing time had dwindled during his career there despite a promising start, Iverson made the unusual decision to transfer after his junior season in the spring of 2011. The South Dakota native chose Colorado State because the Rams had ample playing time available at center, a strong perimeter corps to put around him and a coach in Tim Miles who had recruited him previously.
"One of the main reasons I left Minnesota was I felt like I wasn't improving as a player and reaching my full potential," Iverson said. "I wanted to find a place where I could get better and play a bigger role on the team. I'm fortunate to have found a place where they'd invest time in me and it has worked out great."
Perhaps one of the reasons Iverson has thrived at Colorado State is that his focus and work ethic have improved with greater maturity. Not only did he work tirelessly to hone his footwork and low-post moves during the year he sat out following his transfer, he also improved his strength and agility thanks to extra lifting and conditioning and a revamped diet.
"I knew Colton was going to be a tremendous addition to our team even last year," Hornung said. "I always had to guard him in practice when he was on the scout team and I couldn't do anything against him. I couldn't stop him and I couldn't block him out. He's such a big body, he's so athletic and he has such good hands, so he has all the makings of a good rebounder."
If the addition of Iverson is part of the reason Colorado State has become a ferocious rebounding team, the other factor is the culture change Eustachy implemented.
Colorado State only won one league game on the road last season in part because it lived and died with its outside shooting. Eustachy persuaded the senior-laden team he inherited from Miles that the path to increased road success was via improved mental toughness, physical defense and relentless rebounding.
It's certainly not only Iverson who bought into Eustachy's approach.
Hornung, already an instinctual rebounder and fierce defender, has thrived going up against guys closer to his own size this season, averaging career highs of 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Smith and 6-foot-4 wing Daniel Bejarano also combine for 12 boards per game because whenever an opposing team puts up a shot, they're careful to find an opposing player to box out and to help secure the rebound.
"You work on the things daily that you want to show up in games," Eustachy said. "We play a lot of teams that will try to block us out early in games, but if you haven't worked on it all year long, it eventually wears off during games and we find a way of getting extra possessions. You have to spend a lot of time on it to be good at it, and that's why we spend more time on rebounding than most."
Some of Colorado State's most notable victories this season have been a direct result of the Rams' success on the glass.
They clobbered Washington by 18 in Seattle by collecting more offensive rebounds (24) than Washington had total rebounds (21). They surrendered only three offensive rebounds the whole game in a 79-40 bludgeoning of Air Force. And they've out-rebounded every opponent they've faced this season, the vast majority by double digits.
Colorado State's offensive rebounding prowess will be a major factor Wednesday night against a San Diego State team that is stingy defensively but susceptible on the glass. The Rams rallied from an 18-point halftime deficit to force overtime last month at Viejas Arena mostly because they grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and turned many of them into second-chance points.
When Colorado State manhandles an opposing team on the glass and repeatedly gets second or third chances to score, Iverson admits he gets a chuckle out of seeing the frustration on opposing players' faces. It's then that he realizes all the scrapes, bruises and floor burns he and his teammates endured during practice have paid off.
"If somebody misses a blockout on you, you might see their coach get up and go for a sub 30 seconds into a game," Iverson said. It's nice that opposing coaches do notice how well we rebound. It's not easy to block us out anymore, and the drills we did early in the season are a big reason for that."