Fresno State, along with every other school in the Mountain West, got a shove from the conference to improve basketball scheduling in an effort to raise its profile and boost its RPI before a reputation as a one-bid league takes root.
Recommended guidelines include spending a minimum of $300,000 to schedule non-conference games, to play no fewer than 16 home games, to play at least three Top 150 teams in the RPI and no more than one rated No. 250 or lower.
So Fresno State, which in past few years has had considerably less than $300,000 to spend on non-conference games, heads Friday night to Arkansas, an opportunity to raise the Bulldogs’ profile and that of a Mountain West that sent only its conference tournament champion to the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons: Fresno State in 2016 and Nevada last season.
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Fresno State coach Rodney Terry says Arkansas is NCAA Tournament-caliber again this season after reaching the second round last season. “They’re really good. They have seven guys back that played significant minutes a year ago, three starters at the guard spots. They’re good. They have a really good team and they’ve played really well at the start of the year. They’ve played like an older team.
“These are big résumé builders for you.”
To really stick, the Bulldogs (2-0) have to win at Arkansas. Already this season in the Mountain West, Nevada beat Rhode Island, which a year ago was No. 31 in the RPI, and Wyoming won at Pac-12 Oregon State.
Terry says he is thankful for the shot at Arkansas. “Games are really hard to get. This matchup worked out for both of us. We tried on some other games, but this is one we ended up getting and it’s a really good game for us. It’s a good matchup.”
Arkansas (2-0) has older guards in Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Anton Beard. The Bulldogs have older guards in Deshon Taylor, Jaron Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor.
Arkansas thrives off its defense and likes to play in transition, defense fueling offense. The Bulldogs also like to get out and play advantage basketball.
“We’ll see teams like this in our league,” Terry said. “The top teams in our league will look exactly what Arkansas looks. We have NCAA Tournament teams I think in our league, as well.”
The guard play will be critical for both teams.
“We have to play hard,” Terry said. “We have to stay connected and work the game for 40 minutes. … We just have to go up there and do what we practice every day.”
The competition obviously is a significant step up, and Arkansas is 57-1 under coach Mike Anderson against unranked non-conference opponents at Bud Walton Arena. But the Bulldogs have put up 1.371 and 1.328 points per possession and hit 52.9 and 62.5 percent of their shots including 50.0 and 58.8 percent from the 3-point line, all while playing with a fervor at the defensive end that they have lacked early the past two seasons.
“Very important game for us on the schedule, because it’s the next game,” said point guard Jaron Hopkins, who is averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds. “One of my former teammates (at Colorado) is over there, as well, Dustin Thomas, so it’s always exciting playing against someone that you played with a couple of years ago.
“That team is a very good team. We have to respect them coming in and we know they’re a 94-foot team, as well, so if we just stick to our game plan, stick to our defensive strategies we should come out victorious.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT ARKANSAS
- Friday: 5 p.m. PST at Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville, Ark.
- Records: Bulldogs 2-0, Razorbacks 2-0
- Webcast/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Fresno State has one other high-profile non-conference game, Oregon coming to the Save Mart Center on Dec. 16 in the last game in a 2-for-1 series that started in 2015. The Ducks made the Final Four last season. … Arkansas, picked to finish sixth in the SEC in a preseason media poll, has beaten up on Samford (95-56) and Bucknell (101-73). The Razorbacks are led by Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, who are averaging 21.5 and 18.5 points per game. They are the first Arkansas duo to return after scoring 450 or more points with 70 or more assists in the previous season since Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman in 1994. Samford and Bucknell are not daunting early-season tests, but Arkansas has hit 55.2 percent of its shots and is a plus-9.5 in rebounding margin. Last season, Arkansas lost to North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.