Fresno State guard Cezar Guerrero goes up against a Colorado State defender on Senior Night, March 2. Guerrero, one-of-three seniors on the team, looks to help lead the Mountain West champion Bulldogs to an NCAA Tournament victory Thursday when they face Utah in the opening round. (Khone Saysamongdy/The Collegian)
The No. 14-seeded Fresno State Bulldogs (25-9) are set to face the third-seeded Utah Runnin’ Utes (26-8) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 4:27 p.m. PST, with the game televised on TruTV.
Although the team is excited about returning to the Big Dance for the first time since 2001, head coach Rodney Terry said the players are treating this game like just any other game.
“We’ve tried to keep it as routine as possible and just do what we’ve done the last part of the season,” Terry said. “We’re going to have to play great transition defense. We’re going to have to get back and obviously do a great job with their big guy. But more importantly, we are going to have to play the way that we play offensively in terms of playing with great pace and be in attack mode the whole time.”
Both teams finished in second in their regular season conferences. The Bulldogs have won nine straight games and are led by Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris. Fresno State earned an automatic bid by winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament. The Bulldogs are No. 16 nationally in steals per game with 8.2 and fifth nationally in turnover margin.
Harris knows what they’re up against but is very confident in his team.
“We’ve been playing good basketball. We’ve been playing unselfish, and we’ve been playing together,” he said. “I think that’s a big key to our success in the last couple games – playing with each other and just knowing that we can win.”
The Utes are coming off of a Sweet 16 run in which they lost to the eventual champion Duke last year, and overall Utah was 10-7 against the NCAA field this year.
Utah was 13th in the AP poll and ranked 14th in the coaches poll.
“They’re a really good team,” Terry said. “Well-coached team and a team we’re excited about competing against.”
The Utes were 9-7 against the RPI Top 50 and had an 18-8 record against the Top 100. They beat USC and Cal to reach the title game and even though they were throttled by Oregon in the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament, they still earned an at-large bid in the NCAA’s Midwest Region to be played in Denver.
Utah’s No. 3 seed this season is its highest seed since earning a No. 2 seed in 1999. The Utes have received a No. 3-seed twice since 1981, including their run to the NCAA Championship game in 1998.
Players to watch
Harris didn’t particularly dazzle in the Mountain West Tournament, but he showed up when it counted as he’s led the Bulldogs to three-straight wins en route to the team’s first Mountain West title. The senior averaged 20 points for the season while also leading the team in assists with 4.4 per game.
Sophomore forward Jacob Poeltl leads the Utes with averages of 17.6 points and nine rebounds per game while boasting a 65.5 field-goal percentage.
Statistically both teams match up well allowing about the same points, with the Bulldogs allowing 70 and the Utes 69 per game. Both teams also match each other in rebounds per game with 37. Utah actually played in the WAC conference with Fresno State from 1993 to1999 with the Utes owning a 10-4 all-time record against the Bulldogs. Utah and Fresno State have never met on a neutral court.
Harris is excited about the opportunity but has only one objective.
“Everybody is focused and confident,” he said. “They know we are not going on a field trip. We’re not content on what we did. We want more. We want to win.”