Fresno State had been playing better, beating Wyoming and Air Force back-to-back. But even with that there were questions about whether the Bulldogs had the ability to exert themselves upon an opponent, to put someone on the deck, figuratively and literally.
Earlier this season, they didn't.
But in winning a third conference game in a row for the first time since the 2009-10 season, the Bulldogs did that. Start to finish on Saturday they eviscerated a San Jose State that winless in the Mountain West, breezing on out of the Save Mart Center with an 82-56 victory.
The Bulldogs were briefly tied -- all of 77 seconds -- and then just took off. Knocking down just about every shot at the start while limiting the Spartans' looks on the perimeter, they led by double-digits at 18-6 on a 3-point play by Paul Watson not even 5 minutes into the game and went up 20-plus at 39-17 when Cezar Guerrero knocked down a 3-pointer with 7:10 remaining in the first half.
The Spartans, who have not led at any point in their past six games, didn't have a chance, which is exactly what coach Rodney Terry wanted to see from the Bulldogs (11-13, 4-7).
"Absolutely," he said. "I think even more so, this time of year it's the mental over the physical and I thought our approach and our preparation (Friday) in terms of our practice and how hard we went and the things that we were doing, I wish I could bottle up the practice in terms of the defensive effort and have it carry over, and I thought our kids did that for a better part of the game."
The Bulldogs to this point had not done that to an opponent, even those in the bottom third of the RPI. They had an easy go against Cal Poly, but needed overtime to take out Bakersfield and Northern Arizona, all in the RPI 200s.
Those games were in November and December, though. The Bulldogs are a bit different now.
"I think we're playing some of the best basketball in a stretch this year than we have since I've been here," said senior Tyler Johnson, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. "I can't really remember back to my freshman year days, but I know since coach Terry has been here this is the first time we've had three straight conference victories. I think we're playing some of the best basketball we have."
In getting out to a 50-29 lead at the half, Fresno State hit 19 of its first 34 shots (55.9%) including 9 of 16 beyond the 3-point line (56.3%). Guerrero had 13 of his game-high 23 in the first half, hitting 5 of 8 and 3 of 5.
The 50 first-half points were a high this season against a Division I opponent -- the Bulldogs had scored 25 points or fewer in a first half four times and 30 or fewer 10 times.
They defended, as well. The Spartans (6-17, 0-11), who had taken 571 3-pointers, 12th most in Division I, hit only 8 of 28 (28.6%) from distance. They were just 9 of 28 (32.1%) inside the arc.
And while the Bulldogs didn't shoot nearly as well in the second half as they did in the first, they never eased much and even with a big lead didn't give up easy baskets at the defensive end, which has been a problem spot.
Trailing 70-48 with 5:22 to go, the Spartans' Chris Cunningham got an easy touch in the paint. But rather than give up an easy basket, Paul Watson and Alex Davis closed and clocked him, Watson taking the foul.
San Jose State got only 14 points in the paint, the fewest allowed by the Bulldogs in a conference game this season. They had been allowing an average of 27.8 per game.
"We knew coming in we were playing a team that could really score the ball," Terry said. "They were going to take a lot of 3-point shots and if we didn't have great urgency on defense and shooter defense then it was going to be a tough night for us. I thought from start to finish our guys really competed at a high level, especially defensively with their effort."
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or @rkuwada on Twitter. Get more on Fresno State at fresnobee.com/bulldogs/.