As Fresno State men’s basketball heads to the 2020 Air Force Reserves Mountain West Championships Tournament, many questions still remain.
The Fresno State Bulldogs (11-18, 7-11 Mountain West) head to the tournament as the eighth seed, and many people, including Fresno Bee sportswriter Robert Kuwada, have hailed them as a potential “credible threat.”
However, there’s evidence against that. To start, the Bulldogs are 0-7 against the top four seeds in the conference.
For Fresno State, one glaring issue stands out — rebounding. Against the best teams in the MW, the ‘Dogs have been outrebounded by 42 (276-233) in seven games.
Bulldogs’ head coach Justin Hutson addressed the rebounding issues in a press conference after Fresno State lost by 12 to Utah State.
“Some of it (rebounding) is desire, some of it is a feel for a game. If I didn’t see the ball shot, then he (the opposing player) has an advantage on me,” Hutson said. “…Rebounding is mostly effort and want-to, but it does have some technique to it.”
In the first round of the tournament, Fresno State faces the No. 9 Air Force Falcons at noon on Wednesday. The Bulldogs swept the season series against the Falcons, scoring an average of 75 points.
At the Clune Arena in Colorado, the Bulldogs won convincingly, 71-59, and had three players score in double digits — New Williams, Nate Grimes and Jarred Hyder. When the Falcons came to the Save Mart Center, Noah Blackwell lifted the ‘Dogs to a 71-62 win.
To hold off the Falcons, the ‘Dogs have to do one thing — defend the 3-point line. This past season, Air Force made 37.2 percent (257-of-690) of their 3-pointers and made 24 against the Bulldogs.
Falcons’ guards Sid Tomes and Caleb Morris combined to make 13 of their 24 3-pointers against the ‘Dogs. After the last game against the Falcons, Hutson stressed the importance of holding on to the lead and not making silly mistakes.
“Once we get a 14-point lead, and then we shoot ourselves in the foot three, four, five, six times in a row, you’re making it too easy on the opponent,” Hutson said.
Injuries derail the Bulldogs
This past season, nine Bulldogs, including four starters, have missed time due to injuries. With players moving in and out of the lineup, it’s been difficult for Fresno State to adjust game-to-game.
“When you’ve had so many injuries like we’ve had and guys in and out of the lineup, you’re playing different rotations,” said Hutson after the loss to San Diego State on Jan. 14. “It’s not gonna be very easy to flow.”
It hasn’t been very easy to flow for Fresno State as it dropped five non-conference games and seven conference games by a margin of seven points. The Bulldogs haven’t been able to figure out how to close games.
Two weeks ago, Fresno State trailed by two points against Nevada with 30 seconds left in the game. The Bulldogs ran a high pick-and-roll with Blackwell and Grimes that ended in a miss 3 by Williams.
Rise of Niven Hart
The Bulldogs have struggled to find a consistent scorer, but they may have found one in freshman Niven Hart. Over the past seven games, Hart averaged 17.3 points on 48.3 percent shooting from the field and grabbed 4.3 rebounds per game.
On Feb. 12, Hart became the first freshman in program history to score 30 points since Randy Holcomb in an overtime road win at San Jose State. Hart has the ability to score on his own, play off the ball and be a spot-up shooter.
If Fresno State wins in the first round, they’ll advance to play against No. 1 San Diego State. The Aztecs swept the season series against the Bulldogs and were the lone undefeated team in the country until losing to the UNLV Rebels on Feb. 22.
For the Bulldogs to compete, they have to find a way to stop the Aztecs’ trio — Matt Mitchell, Yanni Wetzell and Malachi Flynn. If the Bulldogs want an automatic NCAA bid to March Madness, they’ll have to be at their best to beat the best.