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CSU Rams vs. Texas: Three keys heading into NCAA Tournament matchup

Niko Medved’s CSU Rams proved Tuesday night that their underwhelming seeding in the men’s NCAA Tournament was just that: underwhelming.

The Rams had no business being the last team in, and went about showing it in a 67-42 rout of Virginia. They’ll look to carry that momentum with them to Charlotte, where No. 7 seed Texas is waiting to play the Rams at 4:50 p.m. MDT Thursday.

CSU was never in trouble against the Tony Bennett-led Cavaliers, having led for nearly 35 of 40 minutes of game action. Here are three keys for the Rams to replicate such a performance against the Longhorns and move on to the second round for the first time since 2013:

Unlock “Zay Mode”: Mountain West First-Teamer and Rams star point guard Isaiah Stevens has been the main distributor of the ball all season, notching 6.9 assists per game — good for sixth in the nation.

He averages 16.2 points on the year and caught his stride toward the end of the regular season. But that number has dropped to 11 since the start of the Mountain West Tournament, including just five points and four assists against Virginia.

As the team and its fans like to call it, “Zay Mode” has often been the difference in big games this season: A zen-like state where Stevens can seemingly score or facilitate scoring at will and turn the tide.

If there’s any time to come alive, the real-deal first round is the time to do it. Especially against a team like Texas, which can be streaky, too.

Shut down Max Abmas: Remember the Oral Roberts Sweet-16 run in 2021 as a No. 15 seed? You can thank Max Abmas for that. He’s a Longhorn now, but the player who averaged more than 26 points during that three-game run is still in there.

He leads a deep Texas roster in scoring at 17.1 points per game and also dishes out a team-leading 4.3 assists. And he’s as streaky as they come.

One of the reasons CSU dominated Virginia was because it held its guard tandem in Isaac McKneely and Reece Beekman to a combined 21 points on 6-for-29 shooting.

Time will tell if an eight-day break will benefit Abmas and Texas or lead to a bit of rust, but the Rams have defensive weapons like Josiah Strong and Nique Clifford to match him.

More bench production: For the Rams, success in the Mountain West tournament was spearheaded by Joe Palmer, who tallied a season-high 14 points off the bench in the first round, and Lake, who exploded for 15 points in the first half alone against Nevada in the quarterfinals.

Clifford and forward Joel Scott’s combined 41 points and 21 rebounds were enough to top Virginia, but Medved and the Rams have prided themselves on their depth all year.

If you’re Palmer, Lake or even freshman Rashaan Mbemba, there’s no better time than now to put the minutes off the bench to use offensively.

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