The free throws went down, and with each one San Diego State was able to take some bite out of the Fresno State Bulldogs. But with that game now gone, an overtime loss Tuesday against the men’s basketball leader in the Mountain West Conference, the focus is more on the 16 free throws that the Aztecs attempted in that extra five minutes and less on the 13 makes that carried them to victory.
Going into their next three games, the Bulldogs’ on-ball defense and ability to defend without fouling could be a crucial element with a chance to establish standing in the conference race after following up a win with a loss in their first six.
On Saturday, Fresno State plays at Air Force, which is 1-5 in the MW. After that, a home date against Wyoming, which is 3-4 in conference play. Then, a trip to San Jose State, which is 1-6. At present, those are the bottom three teams in the conference.
Fresno State is seeking its sixth straight win in its series with Air Force
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But six games into the MW season, Fresno State has struggled defensively, and as a result has the second-largest free-throw differential and allowed the third most points from the line. Against Division I teams, 26.3 percent of the Bulldogs’ opponents’ scoring has come on foul shots, which has Fresno State tied for 342nd of 351 in the nation – and that’s with those teams hitting only 68.2 percent at the line.
Last time out, the Aztecs used that to their advantage. After going 9 of 20 at the line in regulation, they beat the Bulldogs off the dribble or on offensive rebounds, got into the lane and repeatedly got to the foul line – five possessions in a row to end the game.
In its previous two games, San Diego State had attempted only 11 free throws in a victory at Boise State and 15 free throws in a win at Colorado State.
And, despite Air Force’s record, the Bulldogs could be challenged by the Falcons in transition and in the half court.
“They run Princeton offense, but they’re one of the fastest transition teams in our league,” coach Rodney Terry said. “(Trevor) Lyons pushes that ball. He’s as fast as any player in our league so as much as you talk about Princeton offense, you better talk about some transition defense because they’re a really good transition offensive team. We have to get back and get our defense set.”
Fresno State (12-7, 3-3 MW) has under Terry been a foul-heavy team, playing aggressively in its man-to-man. The Bulldogs led the Mountain West in steals last season with 7.8 per game and turnovers gained with 13.4, was second and fourth in 2013-14 with 6.5 and 11.4. This season, they are ranked second in both categories with 7.8 steals and 15.3 turnovers per game.
“When you’re aggressive like that, its feast or famine sometimes,” Terry said. “We lead the league in steals. We’ve done that or been close every year we’ve been here.”
Fresno State leads the MW in offensive rebounding (13.9/game).
The man-to-man matchups against the Falcons are not as severe as San Diego State, UNLV or New Mexico – in a five-game winning streak in the series, Fresno State has been able to keep the Falcons off the foul line; in a 68-66 Bulldogs victory last season, Air Force attempted only 10 free throws; in a victory in 2014, it had only 11.
But, Terry said, it will come down to the Bulldogs staying in front of the basketball, sticking to their defensive principles and guarding without fouling.
“We’re going to have to do that against a really good offensive team in the half court, one that knows what they’re looking for,” Terry said. “They put pressure on the basket. They want back cuts, but they’re going to put pressure on you with drives. They shoot the ball well. They’re a hard guard.”
Carter remains out – Sophomore center Terrell Carter, who did not play against San Diego State due to an administrative issue related to academic course work from the fall semester, did not travel with the Bulldogs to Colorado Springs while the athletic department awaits a resolution to his case.
Against the Aztecs, the Bulldogs played a three-man rotation with its bigs with forwards Karachi Edo, Torren Jones and Cullen Russo. Edo played a season-high 35 minutes after averaging 24.2 in the first five MW games and Jones played a season-high 37 minutes after averaging 25.8. Paul Watson also could slide down to the four from the three to provide depth, if necessary.
“There have been some things done in terms of what he needed to get done,” Terry said. “But, again, anytime you put yourself in that position, they’re not on your time frame now – you’re on their time frame.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
MEN: FRESNO STATE
AT AIR FORCE
- Saturday: 11 a.m. at Clune Arena in Colorado Springs
- Records: Bulldogs 12-7, 3-3 Mountain West; Falcons 10-9, 1-5
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940)
- Series: Fresno State leads 14-5
- Last meeting: Fresno State 68, Air Force 66 on March 4, 2015, at Save Mart Center
- Next up for Bulldogs: vs. Wyoming on Tuesday, at San Jose State on Feb. 3, vs. UNLV on Feb. 6 and vs. San Diego State on Feb. 10