LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Daniel Bejarano walked through a corridor at the Orleans Arena with his right knee and right wrist wrapped by ice packs the size of grapefruits but he never winced in pain.
A few minutes earlier, Bejarano, a third-year sophomore after sitting out last season following his transfer from Arizona, took a hard spill on the court chasing after a loose ball on defense in Colorado State’s game with Portland.
Bejarano, a 6-foot-4, 202-pound guard, notched his first collegiate double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds in the Rams’ 70-55 victory on Dec. 22. He also had a steal and exhibited a reckless abandon and relentless energy to block off passing lanes in 31 minutes off the bench.
“Defense is where it’s at,” said Bejarano, known mostly for his jump shot when he led Phoenix North High School to consecutive state titles in 2009 and 2010.
Defense is where it’s at?
This is the same Bejarano who was relegated to the end of Sean Miller’s bench as a freshman in 2010-11 because he lacked the defensive prowess Miller requires of his players. Bejarano played only 30 minutes in eight games and did not participate in Arizona’s last 24 games in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight season.
Bejarano now plays for another coach who has led a program to an Elite Eight — Larry Eustachy, who coached Iowa State that far in 1999-2000. Under Eustachy, in his first season with Colorado State, Bejarano said the Rams believe games are less of a grind than what they must endure in practice.
Eustachy’s practices are based on objectives on a board for the players to see. Categories such as “Jump to the Ball”, “Box Out”, “Close Out” are worked continuously and the sessions are more like a football scrimmage.
“This game? … ” Bejarano said, referring to the workmanlike win over Portland. “It’s like practice for other teams. Our practices are tough like games. It’s just crazy the stuff that we do in practice. Our practices are hard.
“At Arizona, it wasn’t much like our practices here. It’s not the drills; it’s the physical part. That’s the thing about it, it makes us tougher. We get into each other. Not much fighting, but we will get into each other. But at the end of the day, after practice, we are all one. That’s the biggest thing. Larry brings defense.”
Bejarano did not bring defense in the viewpoint of Miller and his staff. Bejarano confirmed that is why he was forced to look at another program.
Miller also recruited the athletic Nick Johnson to Arizona last season. The inclusion of Johnson, a multi-faceted talent effective on both ends of the court, and backcourt mate Josiah Turner convinced Bejarano that he would be relegated to the end of the bench again.
“A lot of stuff happened down at Arizona that no one knows, but hey, life goes on,” Bejarano said. “I just picked a different school and I’ll see where it takes me.
“Not getting much playing time at Arizona was not going to stop me from being the person I can be, to show my talent for another school. That’s it. I can just be the best player that I can be for any team. I just want to play. Just give me a chance, and I will show you what I can do.”
Bejarano’s career faced another fork in the road after last season when Tim Miles left the Rams to take the Nebraska head coaching job. Eustachy departed Southern Mississippi after an eight-year stint to replace Miles, who was instrumental in luring Bejarano to Fort Collins, Colo. Bejarano also considered Nevada and Montana.
He contemplated transferring again. He admitted he “didn’t know a thing about (Eustachy). Not one thing.” Rather than take a wait-and-see approach, Bejarano contacted Colorado State athletic director Jack Graham about the coaching search and his options if he decided to leave Fort Collins.
Bejarano realized that if he transferred to another Division I team he must sit another year and lose a year of eligibility because of the NCAA’s five-year clock for athletes. His mother Barbara Butler, instrumental in her son de-committing from Texas and signing with Arizona out of high school, also wanted to learn more about Eustachy.
Eustachy, 57, was forced to resign at Iowa State in 2003 after pictures surfaced of him at a late-night party on Missouri’s campus after the Cyclones lost there. The photographs from the party showed Eustachy with beer, kissing and being kissed on the cheek by coeds. The Des Moines Register also reported that Eustachy was seen at a fraternity party at Kansas State a couple of hours after his team lost to the Wildcats.
Iowa State’s players rallied in support of Eustachy, approaching school officials with the plea for them to retain their coach. Eustachy promised to address his alcohol consumption.
Eustachy never ran into problems at Southern Mississippi. After refunding the school a $25,000 bonus in 2008-09 after a 15-17 season, Eustachy coached the Golden Eagles to a 67-33 record and two NCAA tournament appearances in the last three seasons.
“Once I got to know (Eustachy), it changed everything,” Bejarano said. “Larry has changed me as a person, as an individual. He changed the team. It was good that he came.
“Me and my mom talk all the time. We knew it was going to work out for me. It sure did. Larry knows a lot of people. He knows what he is doing. He has the right staff. Everyone is happy to be around Larry. He makes us smile. He makes us work hard. He doesn’t lay off.”
Eustachy utilizes Bejarano as his sixth man and he speaks of the former Arizona guard in glowing terms. Bejarano, who averages 22 minutes a game, is showing consistency and hustle, with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (18 assists and nine turnovers) with almost as many rebounds (5.8) as points (6.6) per game.
His concentration is so weighted on his defense, rebounding and decision making that his jumper is taking a back seat. He is shooting 39.7 from the field and 33 percent from three-point range.
“Improving my defense was my challenge toward my family, towards the coaching staff,” Bejarano said. “Larry came in and said, ‘Just tighten up on your defense and everything will work out.’ That’s what I’ve been mostly focusing on, just my defense.
“My offense will take care of itself. We’ll score. We have many players who can score. I’m trying to do both but hey I will just play my role. I am not trying to get out of it, take crazy shots, scoring 20 a game. I am doing what is right for the team.”
Eustachy has coached the Rams to an 11-2 start, including a 73-55 win at Washington on Nov. 24 and an 88-52 victory over Virginia Tech in the championship game of the Continental Tire Classic in Las Vegas on Dec. 23.
In the victories over Portland and Virginia Tech in Las Vegas, Bejarano played 57 minutes and attempted only 12 field goals, four of which were three-pointers. He tallied 16 points and 16 rebounds. Although he had only one steal in the two games, he did not commit a turnover. He was selected to the all-tournament team.
“We went with Daniel and he had an opportunity,” Eustachy told the Coloradan.com about playing Bejarano in extended minutes in place of struggling starting senior wing player Greg Smith against Portland.
“You give him enough minutes and I think he’s an all-league player before he leaves here. It’s just about opportunity.”
He’s an all-league player before he leaves here. It’s just about opportunity.
Bejarano said Eustachy gives him the same assessment in their discussions. His coach’s vote of confidence has an obvious impact on him.
Bejarano has faced his share of uncertainty in his young career, starting with the decision to de-commit from Texas before his senior season at North. He was committed with the Longhorns and coach Rick Barnes since his sophomore season in high school. He once favored Lute Olson and Arizona from the start. His commitment to Texas happened when Olson had to leave the program and ultimately resign because of health concerns.
Bejarano de-committed because he wanted to stay close to his mother and four siblings in Arizona after his father Damion Gosa was murdered in June 2009 in an apparent home invasion in Phoenix. Bejarano opened the possibility of attending ASU or Arizona.
Miller and ASU coach Herb Sendek and their staffs visited Bejarano and his mother. ASU ended its recruitment of Bejarano when it appeared he was leaning toward Arizona. Bejarano committed to the Wildcats in October 2009 after taking a visit to Tucson. His host on the trip was Lamont “MoMo” Jones, who also transferred out of the Arizona program to Iona after the 2010-11 season to be close to his sick grandmother in New York.
Bejarano attended the Red-Blue Scrimmage in 2009 with 19 family members from Phoenix after committing to Arizona. Olson, who recruited Bejarano before any other coach, visited the family in a room at McKale Center. That was one of Arizona’s finest recruiting moments. Eighteen months later, Bejarano was looking for somewhere else to play.
“Everyone loved me down there because I showed what kind of character I have,” Bejarano said about UA fans continuing to message him encouragement on Facebook, Instagram and text messages.
Bejarano questions Miller for how he was handled at Arizona but he does not harbor animosity.
“It was hard to figure (Miller) out at first, especially after de-committing from Texas,” Bejarano said. “I de-committed and he was in my house the next day. You tell me one thing and then you do a different thing. It was kind of hard.
“It’s like when you have a test coming up. The teacher’s supposed to tell you what’s going to be on the test and what you’re supposed to do. It was kind of opposite. It was here’s the test, take it. Nothing bad on Arizona. I’m not talking bad. Hey, everything happens for a reason. I know I am a strong guy. I know what I can do. I feel like I have proved it in some areas. I know I’m not a perfect player. I always have something to work on.”
Miller lauded Bejarano for his character late in the 2010-11 season despite his lack of playing time. Bejarano got caught in a numbers game with the transition of high-profile recruits such Johnson and Turner into the program and Jordin Mayes looking like a player who deserved his share of minutes after Arizona’s Elite Eight run.
Kyle Fogg and Brendon Lavender were also senior guards who were slated to be used extensively in 2011-12.
“(Bejarano’s) attitude is nothing short of amazing, considering he doesn’t play, so he deserves a lot of credit,” Miller was quoted as saying by Bruce Pascoe of The Arizona Daily Star. “Sometimes in the long haul of the season, when you have a guy in his role that doesn’t play, who has that attitude, he makes life a lot easier for everybody. He really does.
“To a man, if you ask anyone on our team, they’ll tell you that he’s just really unselfish and a great kid, and he’s working hard to become a better player.”
Bejarano’s year away from the court last season, observing Colorado State’s run to the second round of the NCAA tournament, helped him mature and open his eyes to what lied ahead.
It was like a reset for his career. He saw how he could become an important player for Colorado State, rather than question why he was not a piece of the puzzle at Arizona.
“I helped out, told them what I saw and what they can do better, just offered my advice,” Bejarano said about last season. “So, you know, I was just not sitting there pouting. I was just trying to be happy, just enjoying where I was at.”
Finally given a chance to prove his skills at the Division I level, Bejarano has mostly flourished this season. He posted a season-high 13 points in 16 minutes in the victory at Washington. He shot 3-of-4 from three-point range and pulled down five rebounds. That performance followed an 0-for-7 night from the field with one point in 25 minutes against Denver.
In a 70-61 loss to Colorado on Dec.5, he again made 3-of-4 three-point attempts and finished with nine points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.
“Man, I was going crazy inside because I knew I could play in the Pac-12 if you just give me a chance,” Bejarano said of his performances against Washington and Colorado. “At the same time, I know everybody in the Pac-12 was watching. They took a look.
“I had some close people over at Arizona tell me the coaches over there knew about it and were talking about it. Some of the players were talking about it. Just give me a chance and I can show you what I can do.”
Bejarano remained at the Orleans Arena about a half-hour speaking about his fresh start at Colorado State. His teammates and coaches were already at the casino’s hotel. The trainer was gone also. He had to deal with the melting bags of ice on his own as he walked alone across the street to his hotel room. He did so with his customary well-mannered demeanor.
He looked no worse from wear from his scrapes and bumps and his young career that already has its share of twists and turns.
“Even though everything happened for a reason, I still have a big heart,” Bejarano said about being away from the Arizona program. “That’s the thing about me. I’ll keep smiling. I’ll look back and smile and keep walking.”
Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner