After spending the week taking final exams, the Fresno State men’s basketball team faced an important Sunday afternoon midterm.
The Bulldogs did not make the grade.
Now, listen. Losing 85-77 to a talented and well-coached Evansville team from the rugged Missouri Valley Conference by no means constitutes failure.
So Fresno State doesn’t merit an F.
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Rather let’s give these Bulldogs a C minus – the universal mark for just skating by.
In many ways Sunday marked the halfway point of Fresno State’s season, the final nonconference test (yes, I’m ignoring Pacific Union) before Mountain West Conference play opens Dec. 30.
The Bulldogs are 8-4 with just about all those victories coming off teams that will have as much business in the NCAA Tournament as Santa Claus at Hanukkah.
Evansville is different. Led by 6-foot-10 future pro Egidijus Mockevicius and prime scorer D.J. Balentine, the Purple Aces (9-2) are as good as any team Fresno State will face from here on.
So this was an important progress report. Certainly not the be-all-end-all for the Bulldogs, but an indication of where things stand.
And right now the Bulldogs are still learning not to slouch.
We didn’t have a good motor coming in the second half. I think we need to stay engaged more, be more into the game. When we talk a lot, we’re a real high-level team.
Fresno State’s Julien Lewis
“I’m not taking anything away from Cal Poly because they’re a good team, but we had two opportunities prior to this game to get a signature win,” said Fresno State coach Rodney Terry, referring to losses against Arizona and Oregon.
“This would’ve been a signature win, because (Evansville) is a team that’s going to be good all year long and they’re going to win 20-plus games.”
A win Sunday would’ve gone a long way toward proving the Bulldogs are also one of those teams.
As it stands, we still can’t be certain.
We can’t because Fresno State had too many sloppy possessions that either resulted in bad shots (off-balance, top-of-the-key jumpers by Torren Jones) or turnovers (lazy forecourt passes by Cezar Guerrero).
The Bulldogs managed a 40-40 halftime tie despite 10 turnovers and the Purple Aces’ 13 points off them.
We can’t be certain because Evansville began the second half with a 10-0 run against a Fresno State team that emerged listless from the locker room.
“We didn’t have a good motor coming in the second half,” said sixth man Julien Lewis, one of the few Bulldogs who aggressively looked for his shot.
“I think we need to stay engaged more, be more into the game. When we talk a lot, we’re a real high-level team.”
The Bulldogs certainly looked the part in the opening minutes with Terrell Carter leaning, pushing and generally making life miserable for Mockevicius.
Carter got his first start of the season because Jones was being disciplined for taking a seat on the baseline – instead of on the bench –during Wednesday’s game against Cal State Bakersfield.
The 6-foot-10, 285-pound Carter scored Fresno State’s first five points, one on a putback, and blocked a shot by Mockevicius without leaving his feet.
“He did a lot of nice things in terms of walling it up and making difficult shots for the big fella,” Terry said.
It was set up to be a breakout game for the sophomore from Redondo Beach until he picked up a couple silly fouls (one a blatant hip check, the other an obvious shove) that sent him to the bench.
Jones subbed in for Carter at the 16:21 mark and almost immediately Mockevicius started getting better looks. Evansville employed a variety of back screens to get the 6-10 Lithuanian free in the paint.
Mockevicius really took over in the second half after Carter’s third foul at the 17:56 mark, scoring 17 of his 23 points and grabbing eight of his 13 rebounds after intermission.
While Carter’s improved play has to be encouraging to Terry and the coaching staff, they should be equally discouraged by how the Bulldogs defended the post when he wasn’t in the game.
Jones, who has played well this season, seemed in a pouty mood. Whether he was upset at being benched or his inability to stop Mockevicius, the sour attitude was palatable.
Another source of headaches: Guerrero’s uneven play.
The season stats show Guerrero as Fresno State’s third-leading scorer and only reliable three-point threat (46.8 percent).
And Sunday’s final stats show Guerrero played a decent game: 12 points, five rebounds, four assists.
But his four turnovers, three in the first half, were extremely costly. None moreso than a lazy pass in the opening minute that was stolen by Jaylon Brown and forced Carter to play defense in the open court.
Carter hacked Brown during a layup, which began his slide into foul trouble. And with Carter in foul trouble, the Bulldogs had little chance to defend Evansville down low.
“It hurts a lot,” Lewis said of the loss. “But we’ve got bigger fish to fry coming up.”
Lewis is right. This loss was just a midterm, and not final exams. Still, it shows Fresno State had better hit the books.
Fresno State vs. Pacific Union
Vitals: 1 p.m. Dec. 27 at Save Mart Center
Records: Bulldogs 8-4; Pioneers 4-3
Radio: KFIG (AM 940)