For Fresno State, the stat lines were not particularly good against Colorado State and when added up, that was a tough loss to absorb.
But the Bulldogs, in dropping that error-plagued men’s basketball game Wednesday at Save Mart Center, also got this: 8-of-13 shooting from Cezar Guerrero, including 2 of 3 on 3-pointers, for 20 points, an assist, and a couple of rebounds. And while it’s not in any box score, Fresno State also got an inkling that nine games into his junior season the guard is closer to a full-go after sitting out the first 17 games while ineligible for not meeting NCAA continuing eligibility standards.
It was going to take time. Guerrero was able to practice with the team, though never hit game-speed while he was out. But for the Bulldogs there is no better time for those pieces to come together, in the thick of the Mountain West Conference race and on Saturday set for another road test at Utah State.
Fresno State is 7-6 in conference play, alone in sixth place, but with upward mobility. San Diego State is leading the Mountain West at 11-3, but the Bulldogs are just two games in the loss column behind Wyoming in second place and Boise State in third and one game behind Colorado State in fourth place and the Aggies in fifth.
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“Every 40 minutes,” coach Rodney Terry said, “is big.”
In the matchup at Utah State, the Bulldogs will be playing a team loaded with incentive, having lost the first matchup last month in Fresno, leading Fresno State by one game in the conference standings and with coach Stew Morrill, who is retiring at the end of the season, awaiting career victory No. 400. He is 399-153.
Guerrero could be a central figure against the Aggies’ zone, giving Fresno State another shooter on the floor, another way to attack and create against one of the better defensive teams in the conference. The Aggies are third in the Mountain West in field-goal percentage defense and 3-point field-goal defense; and in conference games they’ve allowed 0.93 points per possession, second behind San Diego State.
“I’ve been feeling great just getting back in the groove of things as well as just finding the right situations to get my open shots and things and getting back into the groove with my teammates,” said Guerrero, who did not play in the first game against Utah State, a 61-52 Fresno State victory. “We’re meshing really well together right now.”
He was not quite there before the game against Colorado State. In the Bulldogs’ three previous games, the consistency was not there. He had eight baskets total in a victory over San Jose State, a loss at UNLV and a victory against Boise State, then eight in the loss to the Rams.
He got only four shots at UNLV, three against Boise State.
But he has been getting extra work before and after practices, getting extra shots up, and while not all the way there, he is closer.
“Saturday,” Guerrero said of last week’s victory against Boise State, “was a step forward with me just gaining confidence and being in the right positions and being aggressive.”
The Bulldogs need a few more shots to drop down the stretch — from Marvelle Harris, Julien Lewis and Paul Watson as well as Guerrero, who in his nine game is averaging 11.6 points. A victory on Saturday at Utah State moves them into a tie for fifth, and they still have games at Wyoming and at Boise State, teams that are ahead of them in the standings, as well as New Mexico and Air Force at home.
“I think he stepped forward obviously in scoring the ball, but I think timing and rhythm, that just takes time,” Terry said of Guerrero. “You don’t make up 17 games in seven, eight, nine games. He was in the best shape of his life to start the year prior to not knowing he wasn’t going to play. He was in the best physical condition of his life. But it’s hard to flip the switch that quick in terms of saying he’s going to be the guy we thought he would be this year. I give him a lot of credit. He’s hung with it and he has gotten better.
“We need him playing at a high level for us. We need another shot-maker. We need another guy that can shoot the basketball and score the basketball. He’s a guy that we were going to count on to do that for us for the majority of the year. It’s important.”