Fresno State appears to be in a spot of trouble five games into the Mountain West men’s basketball season, towing into whatever comes next to back-to-back losses at San Jose State and at Air Force – teams picked to finish 11th and ninth in a fairly dubious preseason media poll.
The Bulldogs were picked fourth and even got one first-place vote, which certainly lends it no credibility.
And, while conference road games are tough, the where is not as important as how the Bulldogs lost those two games and particularly the one Wednesday to the Falcons at Clune Arena.
Air Force hit 51.9 percent of its shots against the Bulldogs, who had allowed only five Mountain West teams to hit 50 percent or better over the past two-plus seasons and 44 games including the conference tournament.
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It was 81-72 and though Fresno State made two runs back into the game after down double-digits, the Bulldogs looked completely unprepared at both ends of the floor and left plenty of room to doubt their effort and intensity on the defensive end whether in transition or the half court.
Given that, it wouldn’t be a stunner to see some lineup changes when Fresno State (10-7, 2-3) hosts Boise State (11-4, 4-0) on Saturday at the Save Mart Center as it tries to regain some momentum.
In winning the previous four games in the Air Force series by two points or fewer, the Bulldogs had always managed to get by but they lacked a little bit of everything this time.
“It’s never been easy over here,” coach Rodney Terry said. “We’ve had possession games where we were able to pull something out, but tonight we played an older team that got off to a good start and played well.”
Sounds good, but Air Force started two seniors (Hayden Graham and Zach Kocur) and three juniors (Trevor Lyons, Jacob Van and Frank Toohey) while the Bulldogs started three seniors (Paul Watson, Karachi Edo and Cullen Russo) and two juniors (Jaron Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor).
This team, like no other year, they force you to make shots. They pack it in and force you to make shots."
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
Air Force simply brought more to the game and sliced up Fresno State with screens and back cuts. The Falcons opened the game like this – a missed 3-pointer followed by a made 3-pointer, a layup, a dunk and another layup. After a missed jumper, there was a layup, another layup, a 3-pointer and then a short jumper.
Air Force hit 10 of its first 14 shots, including two more layups, and was 27 of 52 in the game (51.9 percent) with 42 points in the paint and another 22 at the free throw line.
All of it came much too easily, and it is worth noting Hopkins did not play the final 9:34 and Russo was removed with 4:41 to go when it was an eight-point game. Neither was in foul trouble – each had one foul.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were doing what they do when they run into Air Force and its zones. They launched 3-pointers, going 9 of 26 (34.6 percent). Air Force will do that, pack in its zones and force teams to take and make shots from the perimeter. In conference play, Wyoming put up 35 shots from the 3-point line against the Falcons, Utah State shot 33 and Colorado State 32.
“This team, like no other year, they force you to make shots,” Terry said. “You have to make shots against this team. They pack it in and force you to make shots.”
2014 The last time Fresno State lost three games in a row, going through a 5-game losing streak. It has lost two in a row heading into a matchup against MW-leading Boise State
The Cowboys and Rams knocked down more of those shots in taking down the Falcons, and they also defended.
Fresno State, not so much.
Terry resorted to a zone of his own in the second half, playing two possessions of 2-3, but Lyons hit a contested jumper and Graham knocked down a shot the next trip down the floor. By the time the Bulldogs started to string together some stops, Air Force was in the bonus shooting free throws, getting there with 8:10 remaining, right after Fresno State had cut a 13-point second half deficit down to 59-55.
That was that, and it will be interesting to see what comes next for the Bulldogs.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. BOISE STATE
- Saturday: 4 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 10-7, 2-3 Mountain West; Broncos 11-4, 4-0
- Webcast/radio: Mountain West Network (themwc.com)/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Notable: The Broncos are the only undefeated team in conference play, having taken out Utah State, Colorado State, UNLV and San Diego State. They did not play a midweek game. Chandler Hutchison is leading Boise State and is third in the conference in scoring at 18.3 points per game.