It was this matchup a year ago that turned Fresno State, spurred the attitude adjustment that led to a run in which the Bulldogs won five in a row and 8 of 10 to end the regular season and advanced to the championship series of the College Basketball Invitational.
In a loss at Colorado State, the Bulldogs had been beaten up. The Rams pushed them around, were plus-16 in rebounding margin with 11 coming at the offensive end. They took control midway through the first half and won 76-57.
The Bulldogs are back at Moby Arena on Saturday afternoon and their ability to effectively rebound and maintain a presence around the basket again is a question. In their past two games, the Bulldogs were outrebounded 47-33 in a victory over Nevada (with the Wolf Pack pulling 21 offensive boards) and 40-28 in a loss at San Diego State —with the Aztecs getting 17 on the offensive end, a number that could have been higher had every tap at the rim been counted.
Fresno State, in a five-way tie for third in the Mountain West Conference but just one behind leaders Wyoming and San Diego State, will need to make a physical impression on the Rams, who are leading the conference in rebounding margin at 6.1.
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“It’s the next step for our defense,” coach Rodney Terry said. “Our defense is good enough and we’ve gotten better in other areas. It’s just that last part of it, being able to finish possessions and taking on that mentality. Rebounding is a mindset. It’s a mindset that you want to be physical and you’re not going to let guys push you around. You’re going to keep you guy from getting the basketball and collectively we’re going to do that as a group. We’re going to finish possessions.
“We’ve done a good job with field goal percentage defense — heck, we held a team last ball game to under 39%, but the glaring part of the game was second-chance opportunities.”
The Bulldogs worked on that Thursday and Friday, one through five, each of the players on the floor blocking out.
“Coach wanted to get after it, so we battled inside … guards, everybody. Everybody got into it, the point guards to the centers, everybody got into it,” said forward Karachi Edo, averaging 4.4 rebounds in 22.9 minutes per game. “It’s all want-to right now. We just have to stick our body onto the guy and keep him off the boards. It’s who wants to rebound — it’s a battle of the rebounds right now.”
A year ago, that physical practice came after the loss at Colorado State. This time, before, and there is no question that in order to have a chance against the Rams they will have to hit and hold those blockouts to finish possessions. At San Diego State, they did not.
“We weren’t physical on blockouts. Against a team that you have to do that against, we weren’t,” Terry said.
The Aztecs had only four second-chance points off their 17 offensive rebounds but are not particularly strong scoring the basketball. San Diego State is ninth in the conference in field-goal percentage (41.1%) and not appreciably better around the basket or inside the 3-point line at 45.8%. Colorado State, led by 6-foot-8 forward J.J. Avila, is ranked fourth in both categories at 45.8% and 50%.
“You have to be physical and get your guy out of there,” Terry said. “You have to root him out of there. We’re not going to win the jumping game, but it’s not about jumping. Lowest man wins. You have to get in there and get down and you have to go and make contact with your guy. It’s want to.”