Five years later: Part one of the Bulldogs’ run to the 2016 NCAA tournament

Fresno State guard Cezar Guerrero (right) protects the basketball in the Bulldogs' 81-63 win over the San Jose State Spartans on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 at the Save Mart Center. (Darlene Wendels/The Collegian)

Does it feel like five years ago?

Several players and coaches involved in the 2015-16 Fresno State men’s basketball team will say no – it either feels longer or shorter.

One experience tied all of their stories together — a 2016 Mountain West tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Fifth-year head coach Rodney Terry saw one of his original recruiting classes at Fresno State enter the 2015-16 season as seniors. 

Kenton Paulino and Nick Matson provided more help on the bench. Paulino was an assistant coach, while Matson was the director of basketball operations.

On the court, 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris received accolades and national attention. But he was only one part of that season. 

Senior point guard Cezar Guerrero fed Harris the ball, and forward Karachi Edo slam-dunked any rebound or grabbed any loose ball around. Paul Watson made the 2015-16 team a stop on his way to the NBA, while Julien Lewis emerged as a go-to player in February and March for the Bulldogs.

To tell the story of March, however, it starts with an August trip to Italy that began the season.

In this three-part series, The Collegian interviewed six players, three media members, two assistant coaches and a head coach about the season, and each person shared their memories of the team.

Fresno State coach Rodney Terry directs traffic during the Bulldogs’ quarterfinal loss to New Mexico on Thursday, March 13, 2015. (Khlarissa Agee/The Collegian)

I. Italy Trip

Fresno State had a chance to visit Rome before the season started, as part of a five-stop Italy tour in August where the Bulldogs competed against Italian All-Star teams and visited the landmarks of the history-rich country.

I’m going to the Colosseum hanging out, going to the Vatican, and seeing the paintings,” Guerrero said. “When am I ever going to go back to Italy and go to the Vatican and experience something like the Sistine Chapel?”

Donor Marvin Meyers made the trip possible when he asked Terry during the 2014-15 season what the team needed. Terry expressed his desire to take the Bulldogs abroad as Fresno State was eligible to take a foreign tour every four years. 

Meyers wrote him a check to cover the costs of the trip.

The trip’s expense was not an issue anymore. But the Bulldogs’ lack of traveling experience became a new one.

“I don’t think any of the guys on our team had passports or had been outside of the country,” Harris said. “I don’t think we understood how big that was until we finally got there.”

The sightseeing was one part of the trip, but Terry and the Bulldogs traveled to Italy to improve their game and begin the process of gelling together as a team. 

“When you go on a foreign tour, it allows you to get 10 practices in over the summer and three games,” Matson said. “We had a lot of returning guys, but we also had some new guys so it was a really good opportunity for everybody to get to know each other, play together and define guys’ roles a little bit earlier.”

The Bulldogs went 3-0 in their Italy games, defeating the Vedano All-Stars, 75-72, Vicenza All-Stars, 83-67, and the Latina All-Stars, 90-64. All three teams the Bulldogs faced also played against other Power 5 teams in Italy at the time.

“Two of the three games were really good games for us against really good competition,” Terry said. “We played the same teams that Georgetown, Texas A&M and USC were playing on that same tour.”

The basketball part of that trip was amazing,” Harris said. “We played against some pro teams out there, some good competition, and we got after it.”

Once the Bulldogs departed Italy on Aug. 15, the foundation was laid for the 2015-16 season.

It was good to get the whole team together and start the process of building a championship team,” Paulino said.

II. Preseason expectations

The headliner of the team was Preseason Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris.

“The first thing that comes to mind about Marvelle Harris is when I saw him walk into the gymnasium when Fresno State was recruiting him,” 940 ESPN color commentator Randy Rosenbloom said. “I know how badly they wanted him to come to the program.”

Marvelle Harris was named the Preseason Mountain West Player of the Year. Harris entered the Fresno State program in 2012. (Darlene Wendels/The Collegian)

Harris entered the Fresno State program in 2012 as one of Terry’s first recruits. He played in all 30 Bulldog games his freshman year and by the time he reached his sophomore year, he started every game on the CBI finalist Fresno State team.

“Marvelle could just score. He can knock down 3s, he’ll get to the rim and he can finish through contact,” Fresno Bee reporter Robert Kuwada said. “He was probably the best offensive player that Fresno State has had. I think he’s really underappreciated because, I mean, he ended up as the all-time leading scorer.”

The four-year veteran Harris received preseason accolades, but the team also relied on Power 5 transfers like Cezar Guerrero from Oklahoma State and Julien Lewis from Texas, who carved their own roles on the team.

Fresno State guard Julien Lewis dribbles past Boise State’s Derrick Marks in a game at the Save Mart Center. (Darlene Wendels/The Collegian)

Guerrero started at point guard for all but one game during Fresno State’s run to the CBI finals. He missed most of his junior year while fighting to maintain his NCAA eligibility, but Guerrero said he approached his senior year with a focus on basketball and becoming a team leader.

He felt he could accomplish this with Terry, a big reason why he transferred to Fresno State in 2012.

He was a really good coach and I knew he came from a big time background at Texas where he went to the Final Four,” Guerrero said. “I felt at the time I had to transfer and devote my game to becoming a floor general.”

Lewis transferred to Fresno State in 2013 and arrived with high expectations, Rosenbloom said.

That’s because of his ability to score when he was at Texas,” Rosenbloom said. “I watched him when he would work on his game during his redshirt year. He would relentlessly practice from the perimeter and you love that kind of work ethic”

Guard/forward Paul Watson returned from starting every game during his freshman and sophomore seasons. The junior swingman earned favourable comparisons early on.

“When Paul Watson was recruited, everyone said, ‘Well, he could be like Paul George,’ ” Rosenbloom said. “He’s 6-foot-7 with long arms, can run the floor and hit the 3-point shot.”

Fresno State forward Paul Watson finishes a fast break play with a dunk during the ‘Dogs’ 93-55 victory over the Bristol University Bears Monday, Nov. 17, 2015 at the Save Mart Center. Photo by (Logan Downing/The Collegian)

The 2015-16 team ran deeper than the starting lineup, however.

That was part of the lesson Terry taught his players throughout the season — if everyone committed to their role, then the Bulldogs would find success.

“He created a box for our guys and their skills,” Edo said. “My box was rebound, block shots and finish shots at the basket. I never got out of my box and we held each other accountable because at the end of the day we wanted to win as a team.”

The preseason trip to Italy solidified those “boxes” and for some Bulldogs, there were new boxes to move into.

Paul Watson moved out to the perimeter,” Terry said. “Karachi was playing more power forward than center. Marvelle was playing more point guard. There were a lot of good adjustments that we made in the preseason and it carried into the season. Those guys hit the ground running.”

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