L AS VEGAS — Welcome to the city of long shots.
Fresno State isn’t being given much chance to upset Colorado State on Thursday night in the second round of the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball tournament.
In most of the sportsbooks, the Bulldogs are 8½-point underdogs. Considering the Rams’ average margin of victory in the two regular-season meetings was 15½, one could argue the wiseguys didn’t make the betting line hefty enough.
That doesn’t mean Fresno State has no chance to win. Just that the odds are long. Kind of like betting green at the roulette wheel.
Of all the potential opening-game opponents, Colorado State was the worst possible matchup for the Bulldogs. Not because the Rams are so incredibly good. They just happen to be incredibly good in areas where Fresno State is incredibly average — or worse.
Colorado State ranks as the MW’s best rebounding team in terms of opponent margin. Fresno State is one of the worst.
Colorado State is the conference’s top scoring team, averaging 72.8 points in MW games. Fresno State is fifth at 64.9.
Colorado State, led by 6-foot-8, 250-pound bruiser J.J. Avila and muscular guard Daniel Bejarano, is considered the MW’s most physical squad. Fresno State has a bunch of guys who might get blown over by a stiff wind. (Even Karachi Edo’s sculpted shoulders taper to a thin lower body.)
I’m not saying the Bulldogs must suddenly morph into bullies. But they do have to find a way to stop Colorado State from kicking sand in their faces.
Guard Marvelle Harris, one of Fresno State’s thicker players, insisted the challenge is more mental than physical.
“It’s not really, ‘Oh, he’s bigger than me. He’s stronger than me,’ ” Harris said after the Bulldogs finished practicing Wednesday at a local YMCA.
“It’s who wants the ball. If you want the ball just as much as him, you’re going to have the same opportunity to have it.”
While effort and desire are important, they don’t cancel out size and strength.
For the Bulldogs to become a future factor in the MW, beyond being satisfied with a first-round bye, they’ll need plenty more of both.
Under fourth-year coach Rodney Terry, Fresno State has had a tendency to recruit athletic players. Players who can run, jump and occasionally shoot. But the beef has been missing. This is a program built on string-beans.
There is one notable exception: center Terrell Carter. The 6-8 freshman is listed at 265 pounds — and had to work hard to get down to that weight.
Carter is the only Bulldog strong enough to prevent Avila from bulling his way inside. Problem is, Carter appeared in only five contests during conference play and logged 40 total minutes.
I’d like to see Carter get more playing time Thursday, even if just to make better use of his five fouls. Heck, put walk-on Jarrod Patton (6-7, 225 pounds) in there, too.
Considering how Fresno State was physically manhandled in the two previous meetings, why not?
If Terry is considering giving a larger role to his seldom-used big men, he’s keeping that tidbit to himself. “We’ve got to make (Avila) work on both ends of the floor,” he said. “We made him do that in the last game and he got in foul trouble. We have to go at him and make him work hard on the defensive end.”
More than pure physicality, Terry maintains it’s mostly about effort. But that doesn’t mean Fresno State has the edge in that department, either.
In fact, they don’t. Even Terry admitted that.
“The last time we played we had good effort, but theirs was better,” he said. “Especially on one or two key plays late in the game. Loose ball, 50-50 balls, they got them and we didn’t.”
Every year in March, the brackets of college basketball tournaments are filled with upsets.
Fresno State knocking off Colorado State would certainly qualify, but nothing close to Georgetown-Villanova territory in 1985 or Princeton-UCLA a decade later. Need a more recent example? Look what Cal Poly did last season in winning the Big West tournament.
Incredible as it sounds, the Bulldogs have not reached the semifinal of a conference tournament since 2005 — Ray Lopes’ last season.
Even though this team actually surpassed expectations by finishing sixth in the MW (they were picked seventh in the preseason poll), going 15-16 still qualifies as a disappointment. Especially after how last season ended.
The Bulldogs have a chance to rewrite that narrative, but to do so they’ll have to play bigger and tougher than we’ve seen all year.
“The way I was raised was never to back down from anybody, and that’s how my teammates are, too,” Harris said. “We’re not going to back away from a challenge, and we don’t care who it is.”
The question really isn’t whether Fresno State will back away from a physical challenge, it’s whether they can withstand it.
After watching this team all season, I certainly have my doubts. So, too, do the wiseguys.