The Bulldogs were down 18 at halftime Thursday night when I approached Jim Bartko courtside at the Thomas & Mack Center.
If Fresno State’s newish athletic director didn’t like what he just saw from the men’s basketball team or was concerned about its direction, this might be the time to say something.
Or at least drop some hints.
Bartko did more than hint. He stated unequivocally coach Rodney Terry would be back for a fifth season (“Absolutely — 100%.”), then pledged to lend a hand.
“We’ve got to help (Terry) out,” Bartko said. “We have to give him the resources he needs to succeed.”
There it is, then. Everything is A-OK in Bulldog-land.
Except moments later Bartko added this: “Football and men’s basketball need to succeed.”
By no measure, even the bell curve your 11th-grade trigonometry teacher used to grade midterms, can a .468 winning percentage be considered a success.
Coming off a hope-raising 21-win campaign, it’s more than fair to categorize the 2014-15 season as a momentum-sapping letdown.
Hence the anger and frustration of Twitter snipers and email assassins who want Fresno State to cut bait and for Bartko to bring in his own guy after this 15-17 campaign. There must be some temptation. Just from the standpoint that it’s easier to sell and promote a clean slate than one that has been scuffed and muddied.
But I’m going to side with Bartko on this one. Fresno State, to borrow from one of Terry’s favorite expressions, is better off “staying the course.”
Look, I get it. “Staying the course” isn’t sexy. In a world of knee-jerk reactions and nanosecond attention spans, patience doesn’t satisfy. Everyone wants instant results. Everyone wants a quick fix.
It should be obvious by now there is no quick fix for Bulldogs basketball. The program needed a new engine and transmission, not just new spark plugs.
Terry hasn’t made the sort of progress that creates excitement and fills seats, but let’s not dismiss what progress has been made.
Remember this is a program that hasn’t won a conference title in 12 years or reached the NCAA Tournament in 14.
In Terry’s first season, 2011-12, the Bulldogs were so talent deficient they finished with three league wins — in a weak Western Athletic Conference.
Viewed through that lens, Fresno State’s 9-9 and 10-8 records the past two years in the much-tougher MW look pretty respectable.
“I think (Terry’s) one of the bright young coaches in the country,” Colorado State’s Larry Eustachy said after his Rams eliminated the Bulldogs. “They play hard, and they play physical.”
Is what we’ve seen so far good enough? Of course not. Bartko has big plans, and to achieve them men’s basketball must become a revenue generator rather than a vacuum cleaner.
So what does he mean by giving Terry “the resources he needs to succeed?”
A few things stand out.
Take a look at Fresno State’s schedule compared to the MW’s elite programs. No team played fewer home games this season than the Bulldogs, a big reason for their 5-8 nonconference record.
How do teams get home games? By being aggressive and offering more money in guarantees — something former AD Thomas Boeh refused to do.
Bulldogs men’s basketball spent $70,175 on recruiting in 2013-14. That might sound a like a lot, but it’s actually a 15% drop from 2007-08. Unlike most of the competition, Fresno State doesn’t have a dedicated practice facility or weight room. And the team only recently started traveling like their MW peers.
Look at total expenditures. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn Fresno State spends millions less on men’s basketball ($2.63 million in 2013-14) than San Diego State ($6.48M), Colorado State ($4.29M) and New Mexico ($3.69M) and hundreds of thousands less than UNLV ($3.55M) and Wyoming ($2.92M.)
How can the Aztecs afford to spend so much dough? Well, it helps when your program takes in $7.86 million in revenues.
San Diego State may be the current standard-bearer for MW basketball, but it wasn’t always that way.
It’s easy to forget it took coach Steve Fisher six seasons to turnaround a moribund program, and only once during that span (2001-02) did the Aztecs finish .500 in conference.
Nothing quick about that fix, but that patience was certainly rewarded.
Of course, Fisher had already coached in seven NCAA Tournaments by the time he arrived at San Diego State. Fresno State is Terry’s first head coaching job. He doesn’t have a proven track record, so it’s easier to question if he ever will.
And, yes, there are questions.
The Bulldogs, like most college basketball teams not named Gonzaga, Davidson or Colorado State, treat offense like it’s something they do while waiting to go back on D.
There’s a lack of physicality and depth. It’s why All-MW guard Marvelle Harris, who logged more minutes than anyone during conference play, was running on fumes at season’s end.
But perhaps the biggest problem has been attrition. While some promising players exit the program for reasons that are understandable (Braeden Anderson), others vanish for hazy reasons (Isaiah Bailey).
“That’s college basketball nowadays,” Bartko said. “Kids come and go. It’s not just a Fresno deal.”
Not just kids. Coaches come and go, as well. Terry will enter Year 5 with the full support of his boss, but the seat is getting warmer.
Remember what the new AD said about the need for success. At some point that need will become overwhelming.