Fresno State last season went 10-8 in the Mountain West Conference despite getting routinely pounded when rebounding, or trying to, which bucked a bit of a trend going back more than 10 years.
Only three men’s basketball teams that were a minus-2.5 in rebounding margin or worse for a season had hit double digits in the win column in conference play: a 12-4 Air Force team that was minus-4.7 in 2006; an 11-7 Utah State team that was minus-5.8 in 2015; and the 10-8 Bulldogs that were a minus-3.2.
The others, 15 of them, had a combined winning percentage of .311.
That just adds to the curiosity that is the Bulldogs at the start of Mountain West play, which begins Wednesday at UNLV. They have yet to find their best game while getting out to their best start since 2006-07 at 9-4, but they are rebounding better than they have in any of the past four seasons by a large margin. How might that translate in a conference that is lacking marquee wins and in a down year, the Bulldogs having been on the minus side of the equation so often the past three seasons?
“It’s huge because it allows us to play to our strength,” said coach Rodney Terry, whose team has progressed every year following a big step up to the Mountain West in 2013 after finishing seventh in the Western Athletic Conference the previous season.
“We can get out and we can spread the floor, we can run hard in transition and try to get some easy things pushing the ball, or attack the paint with a paint touch or a post feed. It just gives us an opportunity to play to our strength.”
Fresno State has outrebounded 12 of 13 opponents – that’s basketball off the rim or glass or some combination of both, not including team rebounds – and had a streak of eight consecutive games with a plus in rebounding margin. Last season, the Bulldogs’ longest streak was, incredibly, just one.
6.9 The Bulldogs’ rebounding margin per game, best in the Mountain West entering conference play
The Bulldogs are a plus-6.9 in rebounding margin and leading the Mountain West after finishing the past three seasons minus-3.2, minus-2.9 and minus-3.6. In nonconference play last season, Fresno State was a minus-1.5 in rebounding margin.
The Bulldogs have not had a forward or center lead the team in rebounding since 2013 when Kevin Foster averaged 6.3 per game. Last season, it was Marvelle Harris with 5.0 per game. Two seasons ago, it was Tyler Johnson with 7.3. But with the addition of transfers Torren Jones and Cullen Russo and the development of Karachi Edo and Terrell Carter, Fresno State is finishing possessions at the defensive end and getting its guards a head start up the floor.
Fresno State also has had 10 or more offensive rebounds nine times this season. Last season, the Bulldogs had 10 or more seven times in 32 games. They have had 14 or more second-chance points in eight games, including 19 at Arizona, one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. Last season, Fresno State had 14 or fewer second-chance points nine times in their 13 nonconference games.
As long as we finish out plays defensively, get the board, I mean, we can run with the best of them. I feel like no team can really stay in front of us.
Bulldogs junior Paul Watson
“We’ve been one of the worst teams in the league rebounding and it’s something we focus on a lot in practice,” said Paul Watson, who is playing primarily small forward this season. “I think if we continue to do what we do and work on the fundamentals of rebounding, things like that – really all it is, is want-to. So if you want to do it, nothing can really stop you.
“I see it as an advantage for us because we are a team that can get up and down the floor. As long as we finish out plays defensively, get the board, I mean, we can run with the best of them. I feel like no team can really stay in front of us.”
Fresno State is seeking its first win in a conference opener since 2011.
Now, they get a chance to carry it into a conference where they have been beaten up a time or two on the glass – the Bulldogs were outrebounded 45-27 at Colorado State last season and were a minus-10 or worse five times. And right out of the gate, they run into a test in the Rebels. UNLV is expected to have 7-foot freshman Stephen Zimmerman back after he sat out a rout of South Dakota because of a thigh injury. Despite ranking ninth in the conference in rebounding margin, the Runnin’ Rebels have springy players to contend with.
“We have to continue to work at it,” Terry said. “Obviously, we know the level of competition that we’re going to be playing night in and night out. UNLV is going to crash the glass really hard.
“They have the length and the size and the athleticism to do that, but I think we have answered the bell. We have to continue to do that throughout conference play.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Men’s basketball: Mountain West opener
FRESNO STATE AT UNLV
- Wednesday: 8 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas
- Records: Bulldogs 9-4, Rebels 9-4
- TV/online: ESPNU, WatchESPN.com
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940)
- Series: UNLV leads 30-8 overall
- Last meeting: UNLV 73, Fresno State 61 on Feb. 10, 2015, in Las Vegas
- Next for the Bulldogs: vs. New Mexico on Jan. 2; vs. Nevada on Jan. 6; at Boise State on Jan. 9
Mountain West rebounding leaders
1. Fresno State
3. Colorado State
4. Utah State
5. San Diego State
6. Boise State
7. New Mexico
8. San Jose State
10. Air Force