When Rodney Terry first walked through the sliding-glass doors at the entrance to the North Gym, Fresno State was not set up for success on or off the basketball court.
The talent in the program was down. The program APR scores were down. The scheduling was a nightmare. Fan support had dwindled. There was a lot not right, which, obviously, is why the former Texas assistant was there. It was a substantial rebuild.
But in season five, the Bulldogs are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, winners of 25 games to this point and have a deep roster that includes Marvelle Harris, who this season became the all-time leading scorer in school history.
Terry and his staff had to cycle through some bodies to get to the Pepsi Center, where on Thursday they will play Utah in their opener, a No. 14 seed against a No. 3. But they hit on Harris in their first full recruiting class and then seniors Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis, who transferred in from Oklahoma State and Texas.
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Was there doubt whether a NCAA Tournament was in their futures, back then?
“I’m going to be honest: It was rough,” Lewis said. “You might think we would get to the NIT or something when I first thought about it, but not the NCAA Tournament, to be honest. At that time, I felt that we were a little discombobulated.
“I had some doubts when we had some ups and downs, but I don’t have any doubts about this team this year. I think we can advance as far as we can.”
Lewis said he saw it coming, this season and with this group. He and Jerry Wainwright talked about it before the season when the associate head coach returned to the staff after two seasons at Marquette.
“I told him when we talked, as soon as he got back,” Lewis said. “We talked all about going to the NCAA Tournament and that’s all that mattered, getting to the tournament and advancing.”
Lewis is trying to make sure the Bulldogs make the most of it. He is the only player in the locker room with NCAA Tournament experience, having played for the Longhorns as a freshman in a 65-59 loss to Cincinnati in 2012.
“He has been telling me about it since my freshman year and I’ve been wanting to be in it,” teammate Karachi Edo said. “Now that I’m in it, I’m like, ‘Man, it’s crazy.’
Fresno State had a rough start against Colorado State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament and Terry benched all five starters at one point in the first half to get them to settle down and settle in.
But to Lewis, to Harris, Edo or Terry, that doesn’t factor into this game.
“Just play how you normally play,” Lewis said. “Don’t do anything you don’t do in practice or don’t come out and try to make up something you haven’t done before. Just be yourself. Shoot the shots you shoot in the game and in practice and be confident shooting it. Don’t let up. Give it all you’ve got, because every game counts, every game matters, just like the Mountain West Tournament. Every game counts, every game matters.”
Braeden and the Bulldogs – The Bulldogs went through a closed practice at the University of Denver on Wednesday morning, and as they were arriving another team was leaving after getting in some work – Seton Hall, with former Fresno State forward Braeden Anderson.
Anderson left Fresno State to continue his basketball career and pursue a law degree (he is focusing on corporate law).
“I wanted to do something special when it comes to being a student-athlete,” he said. “I wanted to do something that kind of broke the mold a little bit and kind of give other student-athletes just an example of a way to do something a little bit different, to use your education and use basketball in different way. If it does nothing more than just open one kid’s mind, then I’ve done my job.”
Turnover-leery – In its loss to Oregon in the Pacific-12 Conference tournament title game, Utah turned over the ball 20 times, leading to 28 points for the Ducks.
The Bulldogs have thrived off forcing turnovers and turning them into points, which is not lost on the Utes. Fresno State during Mountain West play averaged 19.4 points per game off turnovers and they accounted for 50 percent of the Bulldogs’ points in a loss to New Mexico (31 of 62) and a victory over Air Force (28 of 56).
“The main thing, you have to be sound. You have to be offensively sound,” Utah guard Brandon Taylor said. “It goes back to making two-foot jumps stops. It goes back to making the right pass and seeing the pass before you make it because if you throw a sloppy pass, it’s over. They’re in transition. They score a lot of points in transition off other teams’ turnovers.”
Krystkowiak on Marvelle –Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak on defending Harris, the Mountain West Player of the Year:
“Well, I’m not sure you can slow him down. What I see in a basketball player is somebody that’s playing with a lot of confidence. It’s a little bit rare, for most players, not just college players, to be able to be a threat from the three-point line, a threat from the mid-range game, then also the ability to get to the rim.
“Oftentimes, even if you’re in the NBA, it’s usually two of those elements. To have all three of those facets to his game has been great. I’ve watched a lot of film. I’m super impressed, talked to a lot of people, scouting reports. He’s the real deal.”
Taylor vs. Taylor – Jahmel Taylor has knocked down some big shots during the Bulldogs’ nine-game winning streak, and he could see a familiar face squaring him up.
Taylor and the Utes’ Brandon Taylor played against each other several times in high school and Jahmel Taylor ended up finishing his career at Pacific Hills High in Los Angeles, where Brandon Taylor had graduated a year earlier.
Brandon Taylor’s scouting report: “He can shoot the lights out. You can’t give him too much space because even a little bit of space is a little bit too much space for him.”
Keeping them going – If there are any nerves, the Bulldogs also have Harris, who has a way of getting his teammates going on and off the floor.
“I’m not going to lie: I’m kind of a mean dude, but it’s not to hurt their feelings. It’s just to get under their skin because we play a lot of teams that like to talk and I feel like if you let them get in your head it throws off your game,” Harris said.
“ I know how to push everybody on this team’s button, so I purposely do it sometimes. I purposely get Terrell (Carter II) mad, get Cullen (Russo) mad. I try to push their buttons because I want to see how they react to it and I want them to have that experience of, ‘Man, he’s doing this, he’s saying this, he’s nudging me, he’s chicken-winging me, he tried to trip me and things like that,’ and I just want them to be able to play through them.
“Even though I’m their teammate, I feel like me doing that to them, picking on them, trying to make them play angry, I just make them control their emotions.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
TIME TO TIP OFF
MIDWEST REGIONAL: NO. 14 FRESNO STATE VS. NO. 3 UTAH
- Thursday: 4:27 p.m. at the Pepsi Center in Denver
- Records: Bulldogs 25-9, Utes 26-8
- TV: TRU TV (DirecTV Ch. 246, Dish 242, Comcast 50/748, AT&T U-Verse 164)
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940)