Warszawski: All hail Cezar, and his Bulldogs teammates, too

The Fresno BeeFebruary 8, 2014 


Fresno State's Cezar Guerrero, left, grabs a pass from San Jose State's Devante Wilson, not pictured, intended for Jalen James, right, Saturday afternoon, February 8, 2014 in Fresno, Calif. Fresno State won 82-56.


Every winning basketball team needs a floor general.

These Bulldogs aren't there yet, but they do have a caesar. As in sophomore point guard Cezar Guerrero.

Fresno State has now won three straight Mountain West Conference games, which should help quell murmurs the program isn't making progress under third-year coach Rodney Terry.

Fact is, the Bulldogs are getting better, and Saturday's 82-56 thrashing of last-place San Jose State was the latest supporting evidence. They've been playing a better brand of basketball for nearly a month.

Much of that has to do with the improved play of Guerrero, who has been living up to the "Ceez the moment" tattoo (it's a play on his first name) inked across his chest.

The biggest difference between the Bulldogs of right now and the Bulldogs of December and early January has been the Oklahoma State transfer. Not only his level of play, but his on-the-court demeanor.

Guerrero is a fiery guy who early in the season let emotion dictate his play.

When Guerrero committed a turnover or didn't get a call, you just knew a frustration foul was coming. He continually scowled and pouted. Not anymore. These days, his most common facial expression is a wide smile.

That isn't just because Fresno State is winning. That's by design.

"Coach Terry sat me down and told me I've got to start being the leader I'm supposed to be," Guerrero said. "When you're the point guard, everyone looks to you for leadership. So when you're showing panic or you're showing anger, they look at you and that's when everything starts going downhill.

"He just told me, 'You have a great smile. Just keep on smiling. When these guys see you smile they're going to be happy, too.' That's basically it, and I listened."

Smiling isn't the only thing Terry is asking of his point guard. Guerrero is a natural scorer, but his coach wants him thinking more like a facilitator.

Saturday wasn't a great example of that. Against San Jose State's passive defense, Guerrero came out shooting.

He swished a corner 3 on Fresno State's first possession, made a steal that led to a layup and hit another jumper. The Bulldogs broke out to a 21-6 lead, and Guerrero was on his way to a season high-tying 23 points on 8 of 13 shooting.

It looked like great fun, and the smile never left Guerrero's face.

Guerrero smiled when he hung in the lane for a double-clutch layup. He smiled when Marvelle Harris passed to Paul Watson for a fastbreak dunk. He even smiled when Terry chided his defense at the postgame new conference.

"Where we are right now in terms of Cezar's maturation has been night and day," Terry said. "He's come so far. ... We're asking him to run our offense, distribute the ball and be in control. Then we're asking him to do something he's never ever done before: guard."

Fresno State is beginning to feel better about itself, and a strong finish over their last seven regular-season games (say 4-3 and a win or two in the MW tournament) should build optimism for next season.

The pieces are starting to fit together.

Looking ahead to 2014-15, the Bulldogs will miss Tyler Johnson's steady scoring and leadership. But they're gaining Julien Lewis, who averaged 11.2 points and started 21 games for Texas in 2012-13.

Some observers peg the 6-foot-3 Lewis as an All-Mountain West-caliber player. Paired with Guerrero, that's a pretty good backcourt. Then Harris becomes your scoring punch off the bench.

In the frontcourt, Watson, Karachi Edo and Alex Davis figure to keep improving and Braeden Anderson figures to get healthy. Terry's top recruit, Compton High's Isaiah Bailey, is talented enough to make an immediate contribution.

Projecting ahead, that's Guerrero and Lewis at guard, Watson at small forward and Anderson and Davis in the post. With a second five of Harris, Edo, Bailey, Emmanuel Owootoah and Tanner Giddings.

Is that a roster that gets picked to win the MW title? Probably not. But it certainly doesn't get picked eighth.

Of course, it'll take more than optimism to bring back fans to the Save Mart Center.

Midway through the first half, as Fresno State was pulling away with a barrage of 3s, I glanced up at the new $5 section on the arena's second level.

There were three people seated in the highest row and one very lonely looking usher. The main level was more populated, but nowhere near the announced 6,784.

So there's plenty of work left to do.

The difference now is that Fresno State has a point guard it can count on going forward.

If the Bulldogs are to turn this thing around under Terry, it'll be Guerrero who points the way. Both with his skills and his smile.

"With all the players we have and all the pieces we have coming in, it's going to a great 2 1-2 years," Guerrero said. "I just have to control my emotions from here on out and be the best player on the floor."

Spoken like a true floor general. Spoken like a Cezar.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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