Carefully back away from the cliff’s edge, Bulldogs fans.
It’s nearly basketball season.
Yes, I know. In recent years that sort of news would send most of you hurtling into the abyss. Basketball season wasn’t something to look forward to. It was something to look away from. Or at the very least, ignore.
Not this year.
Not with this team.
Over the past few days I’ve spoken to several Fresno State men’s basketball players and sat down for an extended chat with fourth-year coach Rodney Terry.
Any Division I squad worth its ankle tape sets reaching the NCAA Tournament as one of its primary goals. This year, it’s safe to utter those words without anyone rolling their eyes. Present company included.
Now don’t get this wrong: I’m not predicting the Bulldogs will be among the field of 68. What I am saying is that it’s a possibility that can’t immediately be discounted – or brought down with reality pellets.
“We have a chance to do something that a Fresno State basketball team hasn’t done in a long time,” sophomore forward Braeden Anderson said.
The Bulldogs haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2001, when many members of this year’s team were in kindergarten or first grade. Last year’s College Basketball Invitational finals appearance was the program’s first postseason tournament of any sort since 2007.
This year, though, none of that stuff matters. The specter of past misdeeds and foibles (which I’m not going to re-hash) has vanished into the nasty, particulate-filled air. Nor do we have to wait for the future, when certain players become healthy or eligible.
Right now it’s all about the present, which feels incredibly refreshing.
It took me all of 2 minutes watching the Bulldogs practice last month at the North Gym to determine things would be different.
What I saw was a full-court scrimmage, 5-on-5 with subs awaiting their turns. No team managers, assistant coaches or 5-foot-10 walk-ons plucked from intramurals. Just actual, honest-to-goodness Division I scholarship basketball players.
Big deal, you may be thinking. Actually, it’s humongous. I can’t recall the last time Fresno State has been able to make such a claim, and my Bulldogs history dates to Jerry Tarkanian.
Since then injuries have eroded some of that depth (only freshman Isaiah Bailey’s fractured wrist is considered long-term), and point guard Cezar Guerrero may miss a few games due to an unresolved administrative issue. Those things happen. But it shouldn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.
It’s more than a matter of bodies. The young men inhabiting those bodies have each made strides.
Take, for example, Paul Watson. Last year’s Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year oozes with talent. He’s rail thin but has gotten stronger, and the coaching staff has him playing with more energy.
Junior Marvelle Harris has changed his body and gotten in better shape, which should help with consistency. Guerrero is also in better condition. Instead of just being an offensive force, he can bring something to the defensive end.
Then there’s Alex Davis, the team’s lone senior. Last year you didn’t want the 6-9 Davis taking outside shots. But he’s worked hard on his face-up game, launching thousands of 15- to 17-foot jumpers.
Sophomore Karachi Edo has improved his ball-handling and learned how to better take advantage of his thick frame in the post. Anderson, who missed all of last season, is fully healthy. He brings much-needed size and energy. Freshman Terrell Carter, who Terry called his best back-to-the-basket scorer, has shed 25 pounds since setting foot on campus. He looks like a force.
Not to be overlooked is junior Julien Lewis. The Texas transfer sustained a concussion three weeks back but hopes to be cleared by Friday’s opener at Pepperdine. He’s probably Fresno State’s best on-the-ball defender and on some nights will lead the team in scoring.
“I like this team,” Lewis said. “We have lots of depth, and it’s focused. We’re out here in practice beating each other up every single day.”
Add it all up (and I left out a few guys), and you’ve got quite a collection of talent. Some of Terry’s toughest decisions will be which ones are the starters and how to set his rotation.
Those are good problems.
“I think we’re at a point right now where we have a good mesh of guys,” Terry said. “Most of them had a chance to get some good experience a year ago. They just have to continue to build on it and be hungry for more.
“Because there is more.”
Because this is Fresno State basketball we’re talking about, the Bulldogs remain under the radar.
Fresno State was picked to finish seventh in the 11-team MW, the same spot it finished last season (in a three-way tie) after winning eight of 10 conference games down the stretch.
That’s not a sign of disrespect. More like ignorance and skepticism about a program that has been down in the dumps for a long time.
But that’s OK. It’s always better to surpass expectations than fall flat in front of them.
Yes, Bulldogs fans, football season has been painful.
Basketball season shouldn’t be. In fact, it should be a pleasure.