Fresno State gets a third chance to win a third conference game in a row and this would be a good time to get it, in the mix toward the top of the Mountain West with four games to go and up against Air Force, winner of two in a row, but also 10th of 11 teams in the men’s basketball standings.
And while the Falcons will present problems – including one Jacob Van, a 6-2 sophomore guard who after playing more than 12 minutes just once in the first 25 games has topped 20 points twice in scoring a career high in each of the past three games – the Bulldogs have to be careful that their biggest impediment is not one of their own creation.
The Bulldogs are 14-2 at Save Mart Center, the best home winning percentage and the most home wins in the Mountain West. They can clinch a first-round bye at the conference tournament with two wins in final four games.
In a 56-55 victory last month at Clune Arena, Fresno State (18-9, 9-5 MW) struggled against Air Force’s zone defenses, settling for long jump shots and taking 25 three-pointers, and if not for scoring 28 points off 17 Air Force turnovers the outcome might have been different.
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Paint drives and post touches were few and far between. Fresno State scored 18 of its points in the paint, but 12 came off turnovers and four came off offensive rebounds. In the half court, the Bulldogs were taking and missing mid-range and three-point jump shots, making 20 of 58 shots (34.5 percent). They were 9 of 25 from beyond the three-point line and 11 of 33 inside it, and that includes eight layups or dunks off those steals and offensive rebounds.
If we have an open three, take it, but we have to try to attack first, get into the lane and penetrate the defense.
Bulldogs guard Jahmel Taylor
“We’re definitely going to try to attack that zone, just get the shots that we need,” said guard Jahmel Taylor, who has added a long-range threat for the Bulldogs over the past three games, hitting 9 of 13 three-point attempts. “If we have an open three, take it, but we have to try to attack first, get into the lane and penetrate the defense. That way, if we have an open three, it will be a lot easier to take.
“I feel like we’ve been making a lot more shots because we’ve been getting into the paint and the shots have been easier. Everybody has been getting to the paint and finding the next guy, keeping it in the flow of the offense, and it has helped us a lot with our shot selection.”
At Air Force (14-14, 5-10), that seldom happened. The Bulldogs scored .836 points per possession and only twice this season has it been lower, in losses to New Mexico (.816) and at San Jose State (.803).
Fresno State has taken more threes only twice and when the Bulldogs did, they got 10 and five extra minutes to fire away, with 30 in the double-overtime victory over UNLV at Save Mart Center and 29 in an overtime loss at Nevada. While Fresno State is fourth in three-point shooting in MW games, hitting 34.9 percent, that number is bumped up significantly by that 15 of 22 in a victory at Wyoming.
Fresno State at 9-5 is tied for second place in the MW standings with New Mexico and four games back of first-place San Diego State (13-1).
“Defensively, they make you have to make shots and they make you have to try to attack with a good pace of play,” coach Rodney Terry said of the Falcons. “They did a really good job with their zone; you have to give them credit. Their zone was really good the last game. They really spread us out with their zone, with their length, and they made it difficult for us.
“I think the biggest thing any time you’re going to play a team that’s going to play a lot of different zone defenses is that you have to have good ball movement and good player movement. We want to attack on our terms, if possible.”
Et cetera – Forward Paul Watson, who has missed the past three games with a calf injury suffered in the second half of the Bulldogs’ victory over conference-leading San Diego State, continues to progress in practice and could see some minutes against the Falcons.
“There’s a chance,” Terry said. “(Tuesday), I was much more encouraged by what I saw than (Monday) so there’s a chance he could get some minutes here or there.”
▪ Van did not play when the Bulldogs won at Air Force. He played a season-high 17 minutes in a Feb. 10 game at Nevada and in the past three has scored 17 in a loss at San Diego State, 21 in a victory over UNLV and 22 in a victory over New Mexico.
“Van has made them better because he has given them another guy that can make shots and another guy that can create scoring opportunities for other teammates,” Terry said. “From everything I’ve heard about him, he’s an unbelievable gym rat and I remember seeing him in high school. I saw him in the summer. He’s a good, heady player.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
MEN’S BASKETBALL: FRESNO STATE
VS. AIR FORCE
- Wednesday: 7 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 18-9, 9-5 MW; Falcons 14-14, 5-10
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Series: Fresno State leads 15-5
- Last meeting: Fresno State 56, Air Force 55 on Jan. 23 in Colorado Springs