Sitting courtside at Save Mart Center, I kept waiting for Marvelle Harris to grab the game by the throat.
Harris is Fresno State’s best player and ranks among the Mountain West Conference’s top scorers. Yet the junior guard seems content to be a facilitator when he could be the dominator.
“This is Marvelle’s team, but Marvelle’s an unselfish guy,” Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry said later. “He believes in getting his other teammates involved, but there’s a time and place to do that. Sometimes you’ve got to be the guy.”
When my eyes weren’t on Harris, they were trained on Paul Watson. The lanky sophomore forward oozes talent on the offensive end but vanishes for long stretches.
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Watson logged 13 second-half minutes during Wednesday night’s 81-63 victory over San Jose State. During those 13 minutes, two shots and two fouls were his sole statistical contributions.
“The thing about coaching Paul is coaching his motor,” Terry said. “The more Paul learns to play with a motor, the sky’s the limit how good he can be.”
Now’s the time to find out.
Fresno State didn’t need anything special from its two best players to subdue a suspension-ravaged Spartans squad that hasn’t beaten a Division I opponent.
But the time for laying back is over. For this team to have any chance of reaching postseason play, its two best players have to step forward.
Way back in November I touted the Bulldogs as a MW dark horse and talked up their postseason chances.
Of course I didn’t know starting point guard Cezar Guerrero would be declared ineligible for the first 17 games. Or that his absence would lead to a couple horrendous nonconference losses that torpedoed Fresno State’s computer rankings.
I didn’t know promising freshman Isaiah Bailey would get booted from the program for reasons that haven’t been made clear but nonetheless are all too familiar.
And I couldn’t predict Braeden Anderson would be a complete non-factor. To the point where Fresno State took the unusual step of releasing the sophomore big man from his scholarship midseason.
I expected more from Texas transfer Julien Lewis, averaging fewer points (10.7 to 11.2) and shooting at a lower percentage (37.4% to 39.8%) as a junior in the MW than he did as a freshman in the Big 12.
And I expected more from senior Alex Davis, currently serving an indefinite suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. (Read: being mouthy.)
Terry wouldn’t say if Davis would return Tuesday at UNLV, but I expect he will. Why? Because it’s probably the biggest game of the season.
At 11-12 overall, Fresno State’s only path to the NCAA Tournament is by winning the MW’s version next month in Las Vegas. To have any realistic shot of that, the Bulldogs must finish the regular season as one of the top six seeds. Anything lower puts them in the dreaded four-games-in-four-days scenario.
Fresno State currently sits in a three-way tie for fourth place. But take a closer look at the Bulldogs’ 6-4 record. Its puffed up by by four victories against 0-10 San Jose State and 2-7 Nevada, the two worst teams in the MW.
Patsy time is over. Fresno State’s eight remaining opponents tout a combined record of 44-34 (counting Boise State twice). The previous 10 (counting San Jose State and Nevada twice) are 45-53.
The Bulldogs’ remaining home slate includes Boise State (6-3), currently riding a six-game MW winning streak, and fellow 6-4 teams Colorado State and UNLV. The road schedule is even more arduous with trips to Wyoming (8-2), Boise State and both UNLV (4-5) and Utah State (5-5), two teams also vying for a top-six seed.
If Terry’s squad had one mission, it was to continue the momentum from last year when the Bulldogs reached 20 wins and postseason play for the first time since 2007.
Forget about a return trip to the College Basketball Invitational. Because the pay-for-play tournament ended up costing the university money a year ago, my understanding is Fresno State would decline this time around.
That leaves the NCAAs and the National Invitation Tournament, which may also be out of reach.
The NIT gives automatic berths to teams that win their conference’s regular-season title but lose in the tournament. So Fresno State’s chances of getting in that way are remote. Last year, the NIT awarded five at-large bids to non-Power 5 schools. The worst record among those five belonged to 21-11 San Francisco.
So even though we just crested the halfway point of MW play, the Bulldogs have already left themselves almost no wiggle room.
I’m not writing off this team, but it’s clear Harris and Watson will have to do more. More production. More presence. More everything.
In the six games since his 40-point outburst against Nevada, Harris has yet to eclipse 16 points or shoot 50% from the field. And Watson continues to be a different player at home (17.3 points per game on 47.4% shooting) versus the road (7.5 and 28.4% shooting).
“When those guys are playing well for us,” Terry said, “we’re as good as anybody in the league.”
Time for Harris and Watson to prove the validity to that statement.