The losses at home have been narrow for Fresno State.
But missed opportunities here and there and second-half surges that followed deep first-half deficits have left the Bulldogs with a physical demeanor on defense – but without the wins to show for it.
Against UNLV (17-5, 4-3 MWC) Wednesday night at the Save Mart Center, the Bulldogs will focus on finishing – at the basket, in the paint, on the boards.
“What I’ve said to our guys is we’ve got to play for 40 minutes,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said.
“That starts from the outset of the game to the time that horn goes off. It’s very important this time of year. You have to finish. You have to compete, and more than anything, you have to continue to improve.”
UNLV, which excels under a fast transition offense, is led by freshman forward Anthony Bennett, who is averaging a team-high 18.5 points per game for the Rebels. The Rebels are ranked second among Mountain West schools in scoring, averaging 75 points per game.
The key to countering the Rebels rapid play on offense, Terry said, is setting up faster on defense.
“They’re a team that puts constant pressure on the basket,” Terry said. “Transition offense is something they really try to do. We’re going to have to get back, get our defense set, and try to slow those guys in transition. They’re a really good offensive rebounding team.”
There is no doubting that the Bulldogs (7-13, 1-6 MWC) play physical on defense — Fresno State has a +4.0 turnover margin in conference play and has only allowed opponents to score more than 70 points three times this season.
But the same defensive physicality that Fresno State thrives under is also the very sword it falls by.
In conference play, the Bulldogs have out-fouled opponents 138-104.
“We have to finish better,” junior guard Kevin Olekaibe said.
“We have to pay attention to detail more. I think that us being at home, we have to bring the energy to the building. We can’t wait for the crowd to get into it. We just have to do what we’re told and follow the scouting report. UNLV is a very good team. They like to run at a fast pace. We just have to set our defense and make them play against our set defense.”
Olekaibe making most of minutes
Olekaibe, who is coming off one of his best games of the season in a 62-50 loss to Air Force, is one of the players on the team who has had to adjust to a different role.
Last season, Olekaibe was a scoring machine for Fresno State and was its clear go-to option – averaging 17.8 points and 36 minutes per game.
Against the Falcons on Wednesday night, Olekaibe played 24 minutes and scored 18 points off the bench, shooting 6-of-12 from behind the 3-point arc.
Before that, Olekaibe logged in 11 minutes at Boise State, and six minutes at home against Colorado State.
“KO’s been very positive about the role that we’ve asked him to come in and play,” Terry said.
“He hasn’t shot particularly as well as he probably wanted to in the course of this season, but right now he’s coming off a really good game where he made shots.”
Olekaibe has started 15 games this season and is averaging 8.2 point per game.
The junior has seen a recent fluctuation in his minutes, but said he is “not really frustrated about it.”
“I just have to play my hardest when my name is called and whenever he puts me in,” Olekaibe said. “From here on out, I’m just going to give my hardest on offense and defense and try and be the player I was last year and help my team as much as possible. I know what my role is.”
Braeden Anderson cleared to play
Against the Rebels, Fresno State will receive a welcomed addition in frosh forward Braeden Anderson.
Anderson has been cleared by the NCAA and is eligible to play after not gaining admittance to Kansas as a partial qualifier.
Anderson joins fellow freshman post players Tanner Giddings and Robert Upshaw as part of a physical presence that will be tasked with guarding UNLV’s Bennett.
The 6-foot-9 forward will make his career appearance as a Bulldog tonight.
“We’ve tried to keep it simple for him,” Terry said. “We’ve said to Braeden, ‘Come in and do what you’ve practiced. We’ve given you a couple of moves in the post. Just come in and play with a motor. Give some physicality on both ends of the floor, and just play hard.’”