Fresno State will be presented with more than a few challenges Thursday in its first NCAA Tournament game since 2001 – and the largest will be easily recognizable on the Pepsi Center court, where the No. 14-seed Bulldogs will play No. 3 Utah.
It is Utes center Jakob Poeltl, who is 7 feet tall, weighs about 250 pounds and has a diverse skill set at the offensive end that the Bulldogs have not seen much of, if at all, this season or last.
Poeltl was the Pacific-12 Conference Player of the Year after leading the conference in field-goal shooting at 65.6 percent and ranking second in scoring at 17.6 points per game and sixth in offensive rebounds at 2.7 per game.
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He is a throwback, a traditional center who can play with his back to the basket, knows how to get and exploit position deep in the post, and with his size is difficult to root out of there.
Double-team him and he is adept as a passer, third on the team with 64 assists, finding the open man on a team that led its conference in field-goal percentage.
“He’s one of the best big men in the country,” Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry said. “He’s a pro.”
Fresno State enters the NCAA Tournament having won nine straight games – the third-longest active winning streak in the nation.
There is no one comparable in the Mountain West Conference, the closest perhaps being Stephen Zimmerman from UNLV, a skilled big man who as a freshman this season didn’t have the physicality or the presence on the floor that Poeltl possesses. And when up against any reasonable facsimile in the nonconference season, Fresno State had its problems defending in the post.
Back in December, well before the nine-game winning streak and Mountain West tournament championship, and when the Bulldogs were more or less following every win with a loss, Evansville center Egidiju Mockevicius, who is 6-10, had a double-double with 23 points and 13 rebounds against Fresno State. In the second half of that game, he hit 8 of 10 shots and pulled down eight rebounds, which is only four fewer baskets than the Bulldogs managed when outscored 45-37 in an 85-77 loss at Save Mart Center.
Mockevicius was a difficult matchup, though the Bulldogs are a much different team now. Forward Torren Jones, who played 30 minutes in the loss to Evansville, has been out since late January due to an ongoing medical issue. But Karachi Edo and Cullen Russo elevated their games during conference play, and 6-10 sophomore Terrell Carter II has developed into a presence at both ends of the floor, though he often is plagued by foul trouble.
Utah sophomore Jakob Poeltl has scored 599 points this season, putting him on the verge of becoming the first Ute to score 600 points in a season since Andrew Bogut finished with 715 in 2004-05.
Fresno State also got 26 minutes out of Paul Watson in the victory over San Diego State in the Mountain West championship, twice the number he had played in any game since returning from a calf injury in a February victory over Air Force. Watson can provide some depth at the four, where he played his first two seasons before moving out to the perimeter this season.
How the Bulldogs defend Poeltl will have much to do with the outcome and their chances of advancing in the Midwest Regional. Up next for one of them is the winner of the No. 6-No. 11 matchup between Seton Hall and Gonzaga. The Utes are 11-1 when Poeltl scored 20 or more points this season, the loss coming Feb. 4 at Oregon State (71-69).
From the Utah side, there is not much mystery.
Jakob is a tremendous big around this nation, so you have to milk the post as much as possible.
Utah guard Brandon Taylor
“We play like how we’ve been playing, and essentially it’s through Jakob,” Utes guard Brandon Taylor said. “Jakob is a tremendous big around this nation, so you have to milk the post as much as possible and see what they do at first – see if they double him, see if they play him one-on-one. He’s going to take what they give him, and we’re going to take what they give us. We see what we’re going to do with him, and we just have to be ready to knock down shots and make plays.”
Poeltl has seen teams that don’t match up well before, obviously.
“I want to say they usually come double me,” he said. “But I don’t really want to worry about that too much, how they’re going to guard me. I’m just going to take whatever they throw at me. I’m going to still try to be aggressive. If they come and double me, I’ll find open teammates. And if they don’t, I’ll be more aggressive and look for my own shots a little more.”
For the Bulldogs, defense starts at the other end of the floor.
I’m going to try to block every shot he tries to put up. I’m not going to leave the ground until he leaves the ground. I’m not going to go for his pump fakes.
Fresno State’s Karachi Edo, on Utah’s Jakob Poeltl
“We have to stop Poeltl, of course, but they have to come out and guard us, too,” Edo said. “It’s not like we’re just playing against the offense; they have to come guard us, too. So we’re going to try to get him in foul trouble, hopefully, try not to let him get any easy points, any offensive rebounds.
“I have to try to beat him with my quickness and my aggressiveness, my explosiveness off the ground. I’m going to try to block every shot he tries to put up. I’m not going to leave the ground until he leaves the ground. I’m not going to go for his pump fakes. We’re going to play our game and play Bulldog basketball.”
At the defensive end, it will be a guard by committee, and the Bulldogs likely will throw a lot at Poeltl and the Utes, seeking to disrupt a team that struggled with turnovers during the regular season. The Utes were tied for seventh in the Pac-12 with 12.3 per game and turned it over 20 times in a loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 final.
Poeltl is “one of the top big men in the country, probably a top-10 pick in the draft,” Terry said. “He’s a very skilled young player, but more importantly their supporting cast is really good as well. They play through him. He does a great job of sharing the basketball. He’s not a one-man team. He has some seniors on that team – Brandon Taylor and (Jordan) Loveridge, those guys all came in together. (Dakarai) Tucker. Those guys are all good players and they’re shot-makers.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Big Dance Fever
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)