Fresno State will be in an unfamiliar situation when it plays San Jose State on Saturday at the Save Mart Center.
The Bulldogs will have a chance to win a third conference game in a row, a modest goal even for a young team still figuring a few things out. But it's a streak that the men's basketball program has not pulled off since 2010-11 and only has done twice since 2006-07.
But trace back a few steps and the Bulldogs are in a much different place.
Walking off the floor after a Jan. 11 loss at Colorado State, they were steaming. They had been beaten up, the 76-57 loss leaving them 8-9 on the season and 1-3 in the Mountain West Conference. Any thought that they had righted themselves after a home victory over Air Force vanished in the thin air of Fort Collins, Colo. They were outrebounded and outhustled.
Fair to say it was their softest game in two-plus seasons? "Yeah, and against the wrong team," coach Rodney Terry said.
Terry publicly chastised his team for, really, the first time. Inside the locker room, the message wasn't much different -- even among the players.
"I thought we were starting to turn it (around) and we went up to Colorado State and just laid an egg, really. It was one of the first times I thought we just didn't play hard," guard Tyler Johnson said.
The Rams made sure it showed.
"It wasn't pretty," said Allen Huddleston, along with Johnson the only seniors on the team. "Right after the game, we just knew. Everyone knew. The coaches got on us pretty hard, but everyone on the team knew, it was solely us. We couldn't point fingers at anyone else. It was absolutely us."
How they got here from there was a process that started immediately after that game. While Terry and his staff continued plans to change the way they were practicing, Johnson and Huddleston got the team together.
"You have to look yourself in the mirror," Huddleston said. "We got back on the bus and Tyler came to me and said, 'You know, we need to talk to everybody.' We met in Marvelle (Harris') room at the hotel and everyone went in there, every player went in there and we laid it out."
Said freshman Karachi Edo: "I thought we needed it, for sure. We set our minds to doing what we had to do."
By then, a change in the practice schedule was well in the works. They would get back on the floor, right after they arrived back in Fresno. From the airport, to the gym. And they would get after each other.
"We got real gun shy as a staff in terms of injuries and setbacks and were real leery about going with a lot of contact, five-on-five stuff and things of that nature and rightfully so, because we had a lot of guys go down," Terry said. "But when we got back here, we needed to get back to our identity. The two years we've been here, we like to think we've been pretty physical, we like to think we've been a team that plays extremely hard on the defensive end and doesn't shy away from contact and we had gotten away from that.
"We had to find our roots again -- we're going to have to guard hard, we're going to put (a) body on guys and not be afraid to make contact and get some nastiness back."
They went at it for more than two hours, grinding. It was the best and worst practice of the year.
"We just came back and went bone on bone and worked on a lot of things that we used to do before, with really physical block-out drills and a lot of competition, five-on-five, and just made guys have to scratch and claw and compete at a high level," Terry said.
Johnson remembers that "we were knocking each other all over the place. We were chasing loose balls all the way up into the stands. That really changed our mindset."
The next two games were at San Diego State and against New Mexico, the top two teams in the conference. The Bulldogs lost both, but outrebounded the Aztecs and played to a draw on the boards against New Mexico.
Then there were rough losses in double overtime against Nevada and in overtime at UNLV.
But the Bulldogs beat Wyoming, then won Wednesday at Air Force.
Since the loss at Colorado State, they have defended and rebounded better. The Bulldogs (10-13, 3-7), a minus-11.7 in rebounding in conference games after the loss to the Rams, have been on the plus side or even in five of the past six heading into the matchup with the Spartans (6-16, 0-10).
"We learned from it," Johnson said. "We just have to keep doing it. It's not going to be enough to do it for two games and then go back to what we were doing, especially (Saturday). San Jose State, they're going to come in here hungry. Just because they haven't won a league game yet, when they look at us they're not going, 'Oh, Fresno State ... you know?' They're thinking, maybe we have a chance to finally get that one. They're going to come in hungry.
"We just have to play the same way we've been playing, because we've been playing as well as anybody these past two games. If we can do that, I think the second half of the season is going to be enjoyable."
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