When the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference released its Preseason Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll way back on Oct. 11, Feb. 17 was clearly a date that would be on the calendar of the conference, Colorado Mines and Fort Lewis.
That day has finally come, and it will most likely be for all the marbles once again.
Though the 11th-ranked Skyhawks won all three matchups last season, twice by double-digits and an epic 73-72 comeback win in the RMAC Shootout title game at Whalen Gymnasium in the last meeting, the No. 22 Orediggers were named this year’s preseason favorites to win the league by the narrowest of margins – and the narrowest margin has been all that’s separated the two teams all season.
“Mines is a championship program with championship players, championship coaches, championship resources, and we’re going to have a game that’s championship worthy,” Fort Lewis head coach Bob Pietrack said after last week’s win against Colorado Mesa. “You’ve got two great programs that have become two of the better teams in Division II college basketball. It’s a good, clean rivalry. They have great kids and we respect the heck out of them.”
The two powerhouse programs are a combined 42-7 this season. FLC (22-3, 17-2 RMAC) continues to ride a remarkable 30-game winning-streak at home and has won 10 in a row going into Friday. The Skyhawks have been at the top of the standings all season, and the Orediggers have nipped at their heels. Colorado Mines (20-4, 15-3 RMAC) has won 13 of its last 14 games, and the experience factor will be in the Orediggers’ favor.
Fort Lewis lost a number of key players from last year’s team, and Colorado Mines has all but two players who logged minutes in the last meeting back again.
“The guys are looking forward to it, and the community here is excited,” Colorado Mines head coach Pryor Orser said. “It’s a meaningful game for both of us, and that’s really all you can hope for this time of year. I can’t say enough about what the coaching staff has done (at Fort Lewis). We’ve had some great games over the years, and this one’s set up to be another one.”
If the Skyhawks are going to be successful at stopping Orser’s Orediggers, they’re going to have to start by trying to contain the league’s leading scorer, Gokul Natesan. The 6-foot-4 forward was named the RMAC’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year and is the league’s back-to-back Academic Player of the Year. In the last meeting, he tied for a team-high 17 points.
“Gokul’s had an unbelievable career, and he’s a classic example of everything that’s right about Division II college basketball,” Pietrack said. “On top of that, he’s an academic machine. I’m pretty sure he’s already got his degree and settled into a masters program. He went to the right level where he could play, be very successful, and he’s going to be a handful for us to deal with on Friday.”
Natesan leads Fort Lewis star guard, Preseason Player of the Year and last year’s RMAC Shootout MVP Joshua Blaylock by one-tenth of a point in the RMAC’s leading scorers’ list.
“I have a lot of respect for Gokul’s game,” Blaylock said. “He’s a great player, and he’s competitive just like me, so we’re going to want to go at each other. It’s nothing bigger than that, though. I respect him and I know we’re going to get the best he’s got.”
Blaylock’s 25 points and two clutch free throws in the final seconds almost single-handedly led Fort Lewis to victory in the RMAC Shootout championship game. Rasmus Bach and Will Morse combined to go 4-for-18 in that matchup, and Fort Lewis didn’t get much of a contribution from the interior, as Austin Haldorson and Kody Salcido combined for only five points. However, the Skyhawks still came away victorious.
Bach and Morse are certain to provide a bigger lift this time around, and interior forces like Brandon Wilson, Riley Farris and Alex Semadeni give the Skyhawks a bit more depth and production on the interior than last year’s squad.
Part of the roadblock for the Skyhawks in that game was Colorado Mines’ Caleb Waitsman. The 6-foot-8, versatile forward was dominant down low in the last meeting with 17 points and nine rebounds, but he’s been out for the Orediggers’ last five games with a knee injury. He’s expected to return Friday.
“Their bigs hurt us last year, and Caleb was a big part of that,” Bach said. “He’s such a great defensive player, and if he’s not 100-percent he’s still a tough matchup. We’ll just have to make him work a bit harder on defense and hope he doesn’t get the best of us again.”
Bach has become one of the RMAC’s best all-around players. He’s right there with Blaylock and Natesan averaging 18.9 points per game. Whether he’s scoring or not, Morse is going to find a way to contribute, as he is currently the league leader in assists with 5.4 per game and has racked up 30 more helpers than the next closest player. He’s four assists away from moving into fourth all-time in the FLC career record book.
Wilson is coming off his best weekend of basketball and was rightfully awarded with RMAC Offensive Player of the Week this week after a weekend in which he scored 35 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in two more FLC wins. Farris continues to improve after a knee injury earlier in the season, and Semadeni’s lethal mid-range game has put him at the top of the league’s shooting percentage at 72 percent.
Colorado Mines is the league’s best defensive team, allowing 64.7 points per game, and the best rebounding team with a plus-6.6 margin, which means the Skyhawks big men have to show up. Eighty points is a key number, as Colorado Mines has given up 80 only once this year, and FLC didn’t score 80 in any of last year’s matchups.
“We’ve got to do a good job of rebounding and make the tempo our tempo,” Pietrack said. “It all starts there, but you’ve also got to make shots. They’re a very good defensive team, but so are we, so I think rebounding will be the key. Normally, if we can rebound with them, we have a really good chance, and if we can’t those are the times they get us.”
If the Skyhawks win Friday, they’ll be two ahead of the Orediggers in the loss column and it’ll all but wrap up the league’s regular season title for the second consecutive season. If Colorado Mines comes out on top and the teams are tied, the final week of the season will determine the champion.
After Friday, the Orediggers have to travel to New Mexico Highlands on Saturday and host UC-Colorado Springs and Metro State next weekend. Fort Lewis will host Adams State on Tuesday and head to Westminster for the regular season finale next Friday.
“Ever since I’ve been here, Colorado Mines has had a good team and we’ve had some great games,” Morse said. “But, I think we got the benefit of the doubt seeing that we’re only playing them once and it’s on our home floor. I’m expecting a big crowd. We need a big crowd, and it’s been clear over the years that when we get that energy and boost from the fans, we’ve been tough to beat.”