Colorado State big man Iverson bets big in chasing NBA dream

Colton Iverson’s college basketball odyssey spanned five years, two schools and three head coaches, and it included a risky transfer that could have crushed his dreams.

That it didn’t is a testament to hard work, good coaching and the power of positive thinking.

Iverson, a legitimate post man at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds, didn’t hate his time at Minnesota playing for Tubby Smith. For two years, his career seemed on an upward trend: He had 20 points and four assists against Eastern Washington in his freshman season. He put together a 13-point, 11-rebound game against Final Four-bound Butler as a sophomore, followed days later by 14 and 12 against Texas A&M. As a junior, Iverson started 11 times, averaging career highs of 5.4 points and 5.0 rebounds. But when his third season at the U was over, Iverson knew his time there had also come to a close.

“I felt like I was flat-lining at Minnesota,” Iverson said. “I was looking for a program where I could show what I could do on the court, and be more of a leader on the team. I wanted to step up and show people what I had to offer. But I was definitely nervous after I’d announced I was transferring, because it was a huge risk. I’d have to sit out for a year [under NCAA transfer rules]. How many schools would want to invest two years for just one year of eligibility?”

Iverson’s choice of Colorado State seemed puzzling to some. But he had a history with then-Colorado State coach Tim Miles. Iverson’s father, Chuck, is the athletic director at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D. Miles once interviewed for the basketball job at Mount Marty. He didn’t get it, but Chuck Iverson remembered Miles when it came time to finding a place where his son could better showcase his talent.

Miles was the head coach at North Dakota State and recruited Colton, who was too big time a prospect to settle on a mid-major school. But when Iverson was ready to leave Minnesota, Miles (who had resurfaced at Colorado State) came through, and Iverson chose CSU over dozens of other schools that obviously didn’t mind that two-for-one tradeoff.

Just as Iverson had hoped, the redshirt year he spent under Miles’ tutelage advanced his skill level and his knowledge of the game. But there was a much more useful, and intangible, benefit to his change of scenery and coaches.

“The year with coach Miles really built my confidence up,” Iverson said. “He worked with me on my footwork and skill development every day. I put in the hard work and time. Coach Miles and his staff invested their time in me. The improvement was dramatic.”

Miles couldn’t wait to get Iverson on the floor for the 2012-13 season.

“You knew he was going to be an integral part of that team,” Miles said. “You knew it in practice [scrimmages] when we mixed squads up. His teams always dominated. We thought his final season was going to be special, and that he would be special.”

Miles never got to see the fruits of his labor. When Nebraska offered Miles a chance to take over its struggling program, he couldn’t pass up a chance to coach in the mighty Big Ten.

“To leave was extremely difficult,” Miles said. “It was hard to leave all my players at CSU, but especially Colton. The coach was a big part of why he came out there. But at the end of the day, I feel strongly that we left him in great hands.”

That turned out to be Larry Eustachy, who had successfully revived his career — after a much-publicized bout with alcoholism that led to his dismissal at Iowa State — at Southern Miss.

Iverson was about to play for his third head coach in as many years. He chose to embrace the opportunity.

“He bought in from day one,” said Colorado State associate head coach Leonard Perry. “He supported coach Eustachy from the beginning.”

There’s little doubt that Iverson would have excelled under Miles, but Eustachy’s physical system that places a huge emphasis on rebounding was perfect for the big man.

“When coach Miles left, I was a little nervous,” Iverson said. “But when I saw they were bringing in coach Eustachy, I knew we’d be all right. He’s won at every school he’s been at.”

The pairing of Iverson and Eustachy was just another fortuitous step in Iverson’s development.

“We saw eye to eye from day one,” Iverson said. “We respected each other, and coach Eustachy really invested his time in me. He believed in my ability, but he knew I could get even better.”

Eustachy was right. Behind Iverson’s team-high averages of 14.2 points and 9.8 rebounds and .556 shooting percentage, the Rams soared to the best season in school history. They won 26 games, finished second in the rugged Mountain West and even won a second-round NCAA tournament game. Iverson steadily improved as the season progressed, and he was at his best during the madness of March. When he scored a career-high 29 points on 12-of-12 shooting in a 22-point win at Wyoming, Cowboys coach Larry Shyatt said defending Iverson “was like holding off a tidal wave.”

NBA scouts had been following Iverson’s progress all season, and he gave several of them a treat at the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas when he notched 24 points and 16 boards in a loss to UNLV. Later, in the NCAA tournament’s second round, Iverson grabbed 13 rebounds against Missouri and its physical front line as the Rams won handily. Their season was ended in the third round by the team many expect to win the national championship — Louisville — but Iverson’s mission had been accomplished.

He left Minnesota to prove himself. He did.

“I thought Colton was [Colorado State’s] missing piece,” said former New Mexico coach Steve Alford, who took over at UCLA this week. “He was a tremendous get for them, even if it was for only one year.”

Many NBA scouts now consider Iverson to be draft worthy. That goes double for Iverson’s coaches. Perry served six years as an assistant coach and scout for the Indiana Pacers, and he thinks Iverson will have a long NBA career.

“At Indiana, I was around some of the greatest minds in the game — Donnie Walsh, Larry Bird, Rick Carlisle,” Perry said. “And in listening to their thoughts and watching the process, I figured out that in order to be drafted into the NBA, there has to be a component of your game that sets you apart, that you can do on a consistent basis every day.

“Based on that, there’s no question in my mind that Colton Iverson’s an NBA player.”

Iverson’s next-level skill is rebounding, but there’s more to his game.

“His strength at that level, his foot speed at that level, I think will surprise people,” Perry said. “And he’s got a good basketball IQ that’s going to grow and get even better.”

The man who never got to coach Iverson in a game singles out another facet of Iverson’s package that will endear him to NBA general managers.

“I think the most important part about Colton is he’s a fierce competitor,” Miles said. “He hates losing, and he loves to compete. I think he’s a no-brainer who will find a way to way to be productive for an NBA team.”

A pessimist might look at the fact Iverson played for three coaches in three years and think that was a hindrance. Iverson saw it as a blessing.

“Definitely an advantage,” Iverson said. “I learned multiple things from every coach. My game improved with every coach. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and if I do get to realize my dream of playing in the NBA, that will have played a big part.”