New Mexico is on the list of teams gutted by the Fresno State Bulldogs during a five-game winning streak heading down the stretch of the regular season and into the Mountain West Tournament.
The Lobos are second in that lineup, after San Jose State and before San Diego State, Boise State and UNLV. But they are much different now than they were Feb. 18 when losing 71-61 at Save Mart Center – with forward Tim Williams back from a foot injury and paired with guard Elijah Brown, the two comprising one of if not the best inside-outside duo in the conference.
That complicates matters by a factor of at least 17.5 for Fresno State (19-11) in a quarterfinal matchup against the Lobos (17-13) on Thursday at Thomas & Mack Center.
“Everybody would like to have a 2,000-point scorer back for conference tournament time,” said coach Rodney Terry, who was 1-3 in Mountain West Tournament games before the Bulldogs reeled off three wins in a row last season in winning the championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
“He was a major factor in our game over at their place and everybody in our league has had a difficult time matching up against him. He’s a really good player. He can score in that paint like no other. He can rebound the basketball. He’s an elite-level player. We’re going to have to do a good job of really trying to contain him and keep him off the glass and try to do all of those things that are really difficult to do.”
Williams, who missed seven games with a stress reaction in his left foot, returned Saturday for the regular-season finale and played 31 minutes in a victory over San Diego State that secured the No. 5 seed.
His return gave not only the Lobos but Brown a significant boost. In its first 10 MW games, New Mexico shot 47.7 percent and averaged 77.3 points. But in seven games without Williams, who is averaging 17.5 points this season and has 1,924 points in his career, the Lobos fell off to 44.2 percent and 69.7.
Fresno State and Boise State are the only Mountain West teams to earn a first-round bye for the conference tournament each of the past three seasons.
Brown, who became the primary focus for opposing teams, averaged 21.3 points through the Lobos’ first 10 conference games, shooting 41.3 percent and averaging 8.5 free-throw attempts. In the seven games without Williams, Brown averaged 18.7 points but shot only 35.1 percent and averaging just 5.9 free-throw attempts.
At Save Mart Center, Fresno State held Brown to 11 points. He hit just 4 of 12 shots and attempted only three free throws.
The Bulldogs made some adjustments for that game and defended the 6-foot-4 Brown differently, keeping their feet on the ground and walling up when contesting shots, and they have a wealth of players to utilize in that matchup Thursday with the length and athleticism of Paul Watson or the competitiveness of Deshon Taylor.
But they have to be prepared for Brown’s adjustments and Williams’ impact in the paint.
He was a major factor in our game over at their place and everybody in our league has had a difficult time matching up against him. He’s a really good player. He can score in that paint like no other. He can rebound the basketball. He’s an elite level player.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry, on New Mexico forward Tim Williams
“They might try to put the ball in his hands, have him come off ball screens and try to get our big men in foul trouble,” Taylor said. “We have to make sure when he does drive we don’t try to help out too much and leave the other shooters open.
“Williams, he’s a first-team player. We just have to go watch the first game and see what we need to do better while he was in the lineup.”
In the first matchup in the conference opener at The Pit in Albuquerque, Williams scored 18 points and had seven rebounds and four assists and Brown scored a game-high 19 points with three rebounds and three assists.
New Mexico has scored 25.6 percent of its points from the foul line, tied for second highest in the nation. In two games against the Bulldogs, the Lobos were 29 of 34 in a 78-73 victory at The Pit in Albuquerque and 12 for 17 in a 71-61 loss at Save Mart Center.
They hit only 9 of 25 shots (36 percent) between them but shot 20 free throws with Brown going 14 of 14 and Williams 4 of 6.
“They shot a lot more free throws at home – that’s what killed us,” Taylor said.
Fresno State has played short at the four the past three weeks – Karachi Edo suffered an ankle injury Feb. 8 in a four-overtime loss at Wyoming and Sam Bittner has missed the past two games due to illness. Edo could play and Bittner is doubtful, but the Bulldogs hit tournament time playing their best defense this season.
In the five-game winning streak, four teams have scored at less than .900 points per possession and UNLV in the finale was at .787.
“I thought down the stretch we didn’t play perfect, but I thought we played hard,” Terry said. “I thought we competed. I thought we executed some things that we were trying to get done offensively and defensively. But this time of year, you have to want more and you have to execute at a very high level.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Mountain West Tournament
No. 4 Fresno State vs.
No. 5 New Mexico
Vitals: 2:30 p.m. Thursday at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas
Records: Bulldogs 19-11,
11-7 MW; Lobos 17-13, 10-8
TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG AM 940