Marek Warszawski

Early season message by Fresno State coach Rodney Terry heard with open ears

Fresno State men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry had plenty to say to his players and the media following last week’s stunning 84-78 loss to Prairie View A&M at Save Mart Center.
Fresno State men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry had plenty to say to his players and the media following last week’s stunning 84-78 loss to Prairie View A&M at Save Mart Center. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

It felt awful early in college basketball season for a coach to throw down the gauntlet.

Or perhaps he did it just in the nick of time.

Early last week, on Nov. 14, the Fresno State men’s basketball team sustained one of its most inexplicable setbacks in recent memory: falling 84-78 at home to a Prairie View A&M team ranked No. 311 (out of 351 Division I teams) by KenPom.com.

Typically after the Bulldogs lose, sixth-year coach Rodney Terry takes a while to exit the locker room and head over to the postgame press conference.

This time, the wait felt even longer. Before Terry addressed the media, he gave his players a mouthful by admonishing them for their lack of energy and focus.

“It was intense,” junior center Terrell Carter said. “That’s one thing coach prides us on. Our community is hard workers, a bunch of blue-collar people – and for him to see us not give the fans our hardest effort, it felt a little disrespectful to the community and to him.”

I’d rather learn the lesson now instead of later on. This is the best time to learn this lesson. It gives us a better understanding of what’s expected moving forward.

Terrell Carter, junior center

When Terry made it to the podium, with only reserve guard Deshon Taylor in tow, he pointedly questioned not only the Bulldogs’ “toughness and grit” but also their lack of on-court leadership.

“We’ve got some talented guys,” Terry said, “and they’re going to have to sit down and really not try to live on last year.”

Those were the words of a frustrated, unsatisfied coach essentially calling out his players. Terry may not have named names, but the intended targets knew who they were.

Those were the words of a frustrated, unsatisfied coach essentially calling out his players. Terry may not have named names, but the intended targets knew who they were.

“Oh, definitely,” senior forward Paul Watson said. “When (Terry) says things like that, I know who it’s directed to. But I don’t take it personal at all. I know what I’m supposed to do, and that’s to lead these guys.”

If Terry’s intent was to send a message, then clearly it was received.

Fresno State came out with a much more focused, determined effort Saturday despite the 11 a.m. tip.

The difference was particularly noticeable on defense, where players rotated to the ball, remained in their stances and were much more active with their hands (i.e. Jaron Hopkins, five steals).

The resulting 83-64 pummeling of a Lamar team ranked No. 307 by KenPom.com but coming off a road win at Oregon State felt like a group of players responding to their coach.

The guys really came together and were willing to take criticism and learn from mistakes, and that showed (Saturday).

Paul Watson, senior forward

“Those losses are eye-opening, and you have to respond the right way by improving the things you made mistakes on,” Watson said. “I felt I played well defensively (against Prairie View A&M) but did not bring the energy that I normally do.”

At a lot of places, players can count on fans to help bring the energy.

That’s not necessarily the case at Fresno State, where last year’s NCAA Tournament run appears to have done little or nothing to boost attendance.

The university still announces Save Mart Center crowds between 5,000 and 6,000, while actual butts-in-seats still number about 1,500.

Still, the timing was all pretty fortunate. With the Bulldogs about to play four of their next five games on the road, starting Tuesday night at Cal State Bakersfield, the players learned an important lesson:

Bring the energy and intensity every night, or you can lose to anyone – even Prairie View A&M.

“It’s good that we learned this now instead of later in conference,” Carter said. “We just learned that we need to play harder.”

311 current KenPom.com ranking of Prairie View A&M, which handed Fresno State an 84-78 home loss last week

Should a team that starts two seniors (Watson and Cullen Russo) and two juniors who transferred from other Division I programs (Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor) really need to learn that lesson?

Apparently so.

“Our program has been built on energy and effort – that’s who we are,” Terry said. “But every year you have to re-establish that. It doesn’t just happen by itself.”

Per his usual style, Terry downplayed any “message sending” or early season “come to Jesus moments” when I spoke to him prior to the Lamar game.

Nor did he cop to “calling out” anyone in particular, even though it was pretty obvious he did.

Terry wouldn’t cop to calling out anyone in particular – even though it was pretty obvious he did.

“We said from the very beginning of the season the biggest things about this team were going to be communication and leadership – who was going to emerge?” Terry said.

“Being a leader is hard, man. There’s nothing easy about being a leader. You have to do everything right off the court and everything right on it. You have to earn those stripes.”

Last year, Fresno State had three seniors (Marvelle Harris, Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis) who provided the bulk of the leadership.

This year’s roster is more versatile, and arguably more talented, but none of the returning players had ever been placed in a leadership role. (One who has, senior Karachi Edo, is ineligible till spring semester.)

So no matter how damaging the Prairie View A&M loss might be to the Bulldogs’ power rankings (KenPom.com has them at No. 174) and the perception of the Mountain West Conference, it was a lesson that needed to be learned.

Sooner rather than later.

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