Jaron Hopkins was asked, very carefully, about his “transition” to coming off the bench in Fresno State’s past two games after starting the first 17.
“I’m just remaining focused, playing hard in practice and trying to be able to consistently play hard in games,” Hopkins replied. “Been working on my defense as well.”
Seated opposite Hopkins on the podium, Deshon Taylor was asked if he was “trying to make it difficult” for coach Rodney Terry to remove him from the starting five following consecutive 19-point outings.
“I really don’t care about the starting lineup,” Taylor replied following Wednesday night’s 78-57 smothering of Colorado State, which brought the Bulldogs to 4-3 in the Mountain West. “I’m just going to go in there and do what I have to do to get the ‘W.’ ”
A couple of weeks ago, in conversation with Fresno State assistant Jerry Wainwright, I talked about how I thought this team had a bunch of interesting pieces but wasn’t sure how well those pieces fit.
We’re now starting to see how this puzzle comes together.
I really don’t care about the starting lineup.
Fresno State guard Deshon Taylor after scoring 19 points in back-to-back starts
That doesn’t mean I expect the starting lineup Terry employed these past two games – Deshon Taylor and Jahmel Taylor joined by Paul Watson, Sam Bittner and Bryson Williams – to continue into March.
“It’s two games,” Terry emphasized.
If Hopkins and Karachi Edo are back in there Saturday afternoon, for what promises to be a juicy matchup in Reno, no one should be the least bit surprised. (Let’s just hope the Bulldogs get over snowbound Interstate 80 in better shape than the Donner Party.)
Or Terry could continue to roll out the current quintet. Hey, it’s working.
Who starts and who comes off the bench doesn’t matter nearly as much as the team’s success.
The point is, who starts and who comes off the bench doesn’t matter nearly as much as the team’s success. That’s a true indicator everyone is on board with that as the ultimate goal.
After Fresno State dropped back-to-back games at San Jose State and Air Force, teams that are a combined 4-8 in conference play, Terry more than anything was displeased with his team’s effort and energy level.
“Sometimes we practice harder than we play,” he told me. “That’s the biggest thing we’ve tried to do is get that carry-over. If we play as hard as we practice, we’d be pretty doggone good every night.”
The alterations to his starting lineup were Terry’s way of stoking those flames.
If we play as hard as we practice, we’d be pretty doggone good every night.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
In 17 games off the bench, Deshon Taylor had been averaging 5.2 points. Suddenly he’s the Bulldogs’ leading scorer in back-to-back games. In Saturday’s victory over Boise State, Taylor did most of his damage from the foul line (13 of 14). Wednesday night, most of his points came from beyond the arc (4 of 8).
What the box score can’t show is Taylor’s supreme energy and hustle on the defensive end. The Riverside native is adept at both guarding his man and coming away with loose balls.
“To be a good defensive player, you have to want to be a good defensive player,” Terry said. “It doesn’t matter how fast you run or how high you jump; it’s just a matter of want to … and (Taylor’s) always been that kind of guy from the day he’s gotten here.”
Deshon Taylor’s recent emergence doesn’t seem to have fazed Jaron Hopkins, by far the more heralded of the two transfers.
Taylor’s recent emergence doesn’t seem to have fazed Hopkins, by far the more heralded of the two transfers. (Hopkins played for the Colorado Buffaloes; Taylor played for Missouri-Kansas City, a school nicknamed the Kangaroos.)
Hopkins, whose production slid after his scene-stealing performance against Nevada, played one of his best all-around games against Colorado State: 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four steals and two turnovers in 32 minutes.
That those 32 minutes came off the bench mattered absolutely zilch.
What the Bulldogs lack in a true ball distributor, they make up for in ball hawks. When Deshon Taylor, Hopkins and Watson are on the floor together, it’s a rough ride for the opposing team’s guards and wings.
There’s a reason Fresno State’s last three conference opponents at Save Mart Center shot 34.4, 36.5 and 30.3 percent.
0-3 Fresno State’s road record in Mountain West play
The challenge now is to bring that defensive energy and intensity on the road, something the Bulldogs failed to do the last time they packed their bags after two impressive home victories.
If winning road games were easy, Mountain West teams wouldn’t be a combined 12-22 away from home during league play. Still, the challenge is far from impossible. Eight of the 11 teams have managed at least one road win – everyone except Air Force, Utah State and Fresno State.
“Hopefully we can keep our composure on the road and not turn the ball over as much, which is is something we’ve struggled with,” Hopkins said. “And keep playing this hard-nosed defense.”
Dissatisfied with the effort he was getting from a couple of starters, Terry turned to erstwhile backups he knew would deliver. No, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for Hopkins to come off the bench from here on or for Bittner to continue starting over Edo.
But with Terry rearranging the pieces of this roster, and obtaining the desired buy-in and results, we’re starting to see how they all come together.
FRESNO STATE VS. NEVADA
- Saturday: 3 p.m. at Lawlor Events Center (11,536) in Reno
- Records: Bulldogs 12-7, 4-3 Mountain West; Wolf Pack 16-3, 5-1
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940)
- Notable: Nevada beat Air Force 83-76 in Reno on Wednesday for its fourth straight win. Its last loss was at Save Mart Center on New Year’s Eve. D.J. Fenner scored 30 points in the victory over the Falcons and Marcus Marshall, the leading scorer in the conference, added 25.