Fresno State was playing big at the start of the college basketball season, with Bryson Williams at the four and Terrell Carter II at the five and that lineup had its moments.
But since coach Rodney Terry inserted Sam Bittner into the starting lineup at the four with Williams and had Carter come off the bench, the Bulldogs have not lost. A seven-game winning streak obviously is about more than two players and one move, but it has allowed the Bulldogs to get off to better starts and both have excelled in those roles.
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In a 78-52 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Wednesday, Bittner did what he does, playing with pace, defending, moving the ball at the offensive end. He also hit his first three shots, all from the 3-point line, where this season he is 19 of 30, 63.3 percent.
Carter entered at the 15:31 mark and in his first three minutes on the floor blocked a shot, scored in the post, kicked the ball out to Ray Bowles for an assist on a wide-open 3-pointer, had a rebound, and got fouled going to the basket and hit two free throws.
Bittner finished with 15 points, coming on a career-high five 3-pointers. Carter had a season-high 19 points, hitting 8 of 10 shots, and over the past four games is now 24 of 30 in scoring an average of 15.3 points.
“You know what you’re going to get from Sam,” Terry said. “He’s going to set the tone the way we want to play defensively. He’s going to get the ball moving offensively, and they have to guard him because he can make shots.
“And Terrell has always given us a great shot off the bench. I think sometimes, when we have started him, he has worked himself up a little bit and not gotten off to the start that we need to get him off to. But he has always been comfortable coming off the bench and giving us a good, positive contribution.”
The Bulldogs might not have been getting what they needed early in those first four games of the season, but they are now and it’s getting better as it goes.
In the first three games after the switch, Bittner and Carter were a plus-9 and a plus-24 in plus/minus. But in the past four games, they are plus-90 and plus-76.
The 6-foot-10, 290-pound Carter has been a tough matchup for the teams Fresno State has played to this point, but coming off the bench that advantage swings even more drastically toward the Bulldogs and their senior center.
“You have to have your second-wave guys and if your second wave is good enough to be starters, that’s pretty good,” Terry said. “That’s what we have with those guys coming off the bench with that second wave because now they’re getting second-wave guys as opposed to first-wave guys. That’s a big deal. I think that plays a little part in that, as well.”
Fresno State saw 40 minutes of zone for the first time and obviously attacked it well – it hit 54.9 percent of its shots (28 of 51) and had 17 assists on 28 made baskets, the 60.7 assist percentage its highest since a 63.9 in an opening win over UC Santa Cruz.
That was without point guard Jaron Hopkins, who missed a second game with a back injury, and with Deshon Taylor scoring only five points in a season-low 16 minutes.
And that is a positive, as is the versatility the Bulldogs are gaining playing without Hopkins and Johnny McWilliams (ankle). Jahmel Taylor has played the point the past two games and against the Golden Lions had seven assists, a career-high. Bittner and Bowles also have moved some between the three and four.
“It’s very encouraging and it’s all predicated on those inside guys,” Terry said. “Those inside guys allow you to get some clean open looks. J.T. can get a look. Sam can get a look. They have to pick their poison – either we’re going to make those guys shoot contested shots or we’re going to keep it out of the paint. What are you going to do?
“When you have balance like that and you can do that and you have guys that can score in the paint, that’s a big deal, because now you’re not just depending on making shots.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
OREGON AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 3 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- TV/radio: CBSSN/KFIG (940 ESPN)
- Records: Bulldogs 9-2, Ducks 8-3
- Of note: The Ducks will be playing their first game outside the state of Oregon, having played eight on the home floor at Matthew Knight Arena and three at the PK80 Invitational at the Moda Center in Portland. Oregon beat Portland State 95-84 on Wednesday for its third victory in a row, a streak that includes a 95-65 win over Colorado State. The Ducks are 1-1 against Mountain West programs, having lost at home to Boise State 73-70 on a last-second 3-pointer fired from midcourt by Lexus Williams. In the victory over Portland State, Elijah Brown scored 22 points and Payton Pritchard and Kenny Wooten both added 18.
Sam Bittner in 28 just minutes on the floor Wednesday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff had a plus/minus of plus-33, only the sixth time this season a Fresno State player has hit that number or higher and three of them came in the opener against UC Santa Cruz, an NCAA Division III program.
Plus-39: Deshon Taylor vs. UC Santa Cruz
Plus-35: Terrell Carter II vs. UC Santa Cruz
Plus-34: Bryson Williams vs. UC Santa Cruz
Plus-34: Ray Bowles at Long Beach State
Plus-33: Jaron Hopkins at Long Beach State
Plus-33: Sam Bittner vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff