The first word that springs to mind, when assessing the Fresno State men’s basketball team as it runs through a preseason practice, is length.
These Bulldogs look like a successful college basketball team should: tall and lithe, with arms and legs that stretch on and on.
Start with Cullen Russo, the power forward who’s every millimeter of 6-foot-9. Then shift to slender 6-7 wing Paul Watson. Jaron Hopkins, the Colorado transfer who will be Fresno State’s lead guard, stands 6-6. Interior defender/lob dunker Karachi Edo is also 6-6 but plays more like 6-11 thanks to his upper-body strength and leaping ability.
Who’s that tall, skinny guy running with the first group? Oh, that’s Bryson Williams, the former Roosevelt High star who stands 6-8 (and is still growing) but already boasts a 7-1 wingspan. Fellow true freshmen Lazaro Rojas (6-11 forward-center) and Johnny McWilliams (6-6 guard) are similarly long and lean. Redshirt freshman Nate Grimes is 6-8 and when he leaves the ground, the distance to the hoop looks awfully short.
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Even the players that aren’t here have similar traits. When top recruit William McDowell-White (6-5) joins the fray in the spring semester, the Bulldogs will boast their tallest backcourt in recent memory.
“The last three years we’ve been able to upgrade our talent level based on length and speed,” said Rodney Terry, Fresno State’s sixth-year coach. “This year we’ve got really legit length.”
Just about the only rotation player who breaks the long, lean template is big man Terrell Carter, who’s 6-10 and weighs in excess of 300 pounds.
But even Carter looks to be in better shape, which he displayed by going bare-chested after practice.
“A few weeks ago Terrell would’ve kept his shirt on,” Terry cracked.
The mood around the Bulldogs is good right now, as it should be. This is a team coming off a 25-win season, a Mountain West Conference championship and its first NCAA Tournament appearance since the Jerry Tarkanian era.
Even though the departures were significant – most notably Marvelle Harris, Fresno State’s leading career scorer and the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year – there’s a sense that this roster better fits the coach’s preferred modus operandi.
Terry wants the Bulldogs to be built on defense. All those long arms and spry legs should lead to more deflections, steals and easier baskets in transition.
Kind of like the program that has dominated the conference for most of the past decade.
“San Diego State, they use their length and athleticism, and they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Terry said. “We should be one of those kinds of teams.”
Terry must’ve seen my eyes widen, so he paused and backtracked a little.
“We’re not there yet,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think we have a chance to be pretty good defensively. If guys want to.”
All those long arms and spry legs should lead to more deflections, steals and easier baskets in transition.
Count Hopkins among the willing. When I asked the junior from Mesa, Ariz., what he does best on the court, his reply was, “I’m a defender first. I like playing defense, and that’s what our program is about.”
While Fresno State has lots of continuity in the frontcourt with Russo, Watson, Edo and Carter, the backcourt has a different complexion. Three-point specialist Jahmel Taylor is the only returning guard who averaged more than 10 minutes per game.
Fresno State is counting on Hopkins, who started 26 games in two seasons at Colorado, to be its floor leader. He’ll have a similar role to Harris’ in that he’ll be asked to bring up the ball and initiate offense (at least until McDowell-White arrives) but dissimilar in that he won’t be expected to score 20 points every night.
“Jaron’s a high-level player,” Terry said. “When we recruited Jaron (out of high school) we couldn’t even get a return phone call. Jaron’s a Pac-12 level guy.”
Hopkins didn’t play much point guard with the Buffaloes but did in high school and for his Phoenix-area AAU team that included Watson.
At 6-6, Hopkins should be able to see over most point guards and use his height and driving ability to finish at the rim. Defensively, he has the lateral quickness to stay in front of the ball.
“Jaron has all the potential to come in and do big things for us,” Watson said. “He’s going to be a big piece of this team.”
Hopkins was a big piece of last year’s team, too, even though he didn’t play in a game.
Hopkins was a big piece of last year’s team, too, even though he didn’t play in a game. During practice, his mano-a-mano duels with Harris set a competitive tone and made everyone better.
“That was good for me being able to guard someone of that caliber,” Hopkins said. “He’s overseas right now (in Australia) making good professional money. If I can guard him, I can guard anyone in the conference.”
Growing up, Hopkins was always one of the shorter kids – up until a 4-inch growth spurt kicked in between his junior and senior years of high school.
“I always had the ball in my hands when I was younger, and now it’s paying off,” he said. “Being a 6-6 point guard gives me a lot of advantages.”
To exploit them, these Bulldogs will go to any length.
Fresno State men’s basketball
- 1 vs. Cal State San Bernardino (exhibition), 7 p.m.
- 11 vs. Texas-San Antonio, 7 p.m.
- 14 vs. Prairie View A&M, 7 p.m.
- 19 vs. Lamar, 11 a.m.
- 22 at Cal State Bakersfield, 7 p.m.
- 25 at Oregon State, 6 p.m.
- 30 vs. Menlo College, 5 p.m.
- 3 at Drake, TBA
- 6 at Marquette, 4:30 p.m.
- 10 vs. Cal Poly, 4 p.m.
- 14 vs. Holy Names, 7 p.m.
- 17 at Pacific, 7 p.m.
- 20 at Oregon, 8 p.m.
- 28 at New Mexico*, 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.
- 31 vs. Nevada*, 4 p.m.
- 4 vs. Wyoming*, 7 p.m.
- 7 at San Jose State*, 2 p.m.
- 11 at Air Force*, 6 p.m.
- 14 vs. Boise State*, 4 p.m.
- 18 vs. Colorado State*, 8 p.m.
- 21 at Nevada*, 3 p.m.
- 28 at Utah State*, 6 p.m.
- 1 vs. Air Force*, 7 p.m.
- 4 vs. San Diego State*, 4 p.m.
- 8 at Wyoming*, 6 p.m.
- 11 at Colorado State*, 1 p.m.
- 15 vs. San Jose State*, 7 p.m.
- 18 vs. New Mexico*, 3 p.m.
- 22 at San Diego State*, 8 p.m.
- 28 at Boise State*, 7 p.m.
- 4 vs. UNLV*, 4 p.m.
- 8-11 Mountain West tournament, TBA
*Mountain West game