Fresno State on Wednesday night can lock up at minimum a sixth-place finish in the Mountain West men’s basketball race and the first-day bye at the conference tournament that goes with it — and the importance of that going forward should not be discounted.
In the eight years that the tournament has included a first round, whether just one game or like last season three, no team that won on the first day came back to win on the second. They were in and then they were out. Winning four games in four days is the longest of long shots.
Air Force arrives 6-11 in the conference but has alternated wins and losses over the past six games — leaving it sitting on a win if that pattern holds. That puts Fresno State on high alert heading into its final home game and Senior Night for 6-foot-9 forward Alex Davis.
The Falcons are not a high-possession team but are one of the more efficient in the conference, ranking third at 1.04 points per possession. In conference games, Air Force ranks second in field-goal percentage at 45.7% and fourth on 3-pointers at 36.2%. The Falcons are second in assisted-basket percentage at 63.3%. The ball moves, and the Bulldogs will have to keep up.
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Davis compared Air Force’s ability to push and score in transition and its ball movement to the team that has caused the Bulldogs the most trouble this season — Colorado State. The Rams hit 80 in winning both games against Fresno State, 80-57 at Moby Arena in Fort Collins and 81-73 at Save Mart Center.
“We have to stay focused and keep our fundamentals very, very, very tight on the defensive end,” he said. “We know those guys can get out and run, so we have to locate in transition. They do a lot of motion offense, they cut without the ball and do a lot of backdoor cuts if you overplay them, so it’s very important at the defensive end that we communicate as a team and just let the guys be aware of everything that is going on, all of the cuts that are happening, and then finish every single possession out with a blockout and a rebound so that we can put it on them at the other end.”
Fresno State, two games ahead of seventh-place UNLV in the standings and one behind Wyoming with two to play, is coming off two of its strongest defensive games of the season in a 64-59 victory at Wyoming and a 59-55 win over New Mexico at Save Mart Center.
But the Falcons present a different challenge if they can hit their best stride in transition and in the half court all while playing on the road, where to this point they have struggled.
That potential is there, if the Bulldogs slip after a victory over New Mexico in which they built leads of as many as 22 while allowing the Lobos to hit only 37.9% of their shots in the first half. The Bulldogs ended up scoring 21 of their 59 points off 14 turnovers. But the highest point totals that they have allowed in Mountain West play have come against teams sandwiched around the Air Force in points per possession, Colorado State and Utah State, ranked fourth at 1.03
“Their pace of play is maybe the best in the league,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said. “They move on offense, and they know what they’re looking for. They’re an older team. They’re not messing around. They know exactly what they’re looking for and what they want to do. Their execution is really good.
“I think they’re a really good team. They play with great pace on offense. They’re going to really challenge us in transition. They push the ball hard up the floor and then they run their offense with a really good pace of play. Defensively, we have to sit down a get after it. They have guys that can make shots — (Zach) Kocur is shooting the ball at a high level, we know (Max) Yon is a proven scorer, (Hayden) Graham, (Matt) Mooney, all those guys can shoot the basketball. They put a lot of pressure on you defensively, they really do.”