Go ahead and blame the messenger. Just this once.
Four weeks ago, in this very space, I wrote the 2014-15 edition of the Fresno State men’s basketball team would be a different beast than the ones we’ve gotten accustomed to.
I wrote the Bulldogs had improved their talent and depth. That individual players made significant offseason strides. That their preseason goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament couldn’t be laughed off.
OK, go ahead and laugh. At least chuckle at my misguided optimism.
Fresno State is now 1-6 (and winless against Division I competition) following Sunday’s 64-57 setback to Cal at the Save Mart Center, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t as bad as losing to Marist or getting blown out by Northern Arizona.
But it sure won’t help change anyone’s mind about the Bulldogs. Especially yours.
Cal under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin is a legitimate Pac-12 contender featuring one of the best guard trios on the West Coast. The 5-1 Bears have so much talent that sophomore Jabari Bird, a McDonald’s All-American, is only their third leading scorer.
Yet Fresno State had three chances in the final 2½ minutes to make it a one-possession game. Each one crumbled like a stale snickerdoodle.
Freshman Terrell Carter took a hurried, well-defended shot in the paint while ignoring open teammates. Fill-in point guard Darnell Taylor made an ill-advised halfcourt pass in traffic. Julien Lewis barely grazed net on an off-balance 3-pointer from the top of the key.
Three chances to cut Cal’s lead to two or three points, and not one decent shot. No wonder coach Rodney Terry’s postgame comments were tinged with exasperation.
“That’s where guards win games for you,” Terry said. “At the end of the game, that’s where your guards really manage the game.”
Terry undoubtedly was referring to ineligible point guard Cezar Guerrero, who watched the action from the bench.
Guerrero has been more than a missing ingredient. Without him, it’s been like trying to make an omelette without the eggs.
With Guerrero sidelined for the first 11 games — he’s expected to return Dec. 20 against Pacific — Fresno State lacks a floor leader. Taylor made his first career start Sunday, but it’s been primarily Marvelle Harris.
That’s the same Harris who scored a game-high 27 points against Cal including 19 in the first half to prevent the Bulldogs from getting blown out early.
The same Harris who isn’t really a point guard. But these are the Bulldogs, after all. Playing out of position seems to come with the territory.
“We miss (Guerrero’s) experience on the floor,” Terry said. “Experience is a major piece. We’re talking about a guy who’s in his fourth year of college.”
No doubting Fresno State isn’t the same team without the redshirt junior. Although they could’ve used Guerrero’s steadiness on those three critical possessions, his absence wasn’t the reason they lost.
Look inside. Cal enjoyed a 40-12 edge in points scored in the paint and 38-33 on the boards. The Bulldogs’ four primary post players (Alex Davis, Braeden Anderson, Karachi Edo and Carter) combined for six points and six rebounds.
Six points and six rebounds!
Hard to pin that on Guerrero’s absence.
Cal’s 6-foot-10 center David Kravish, a skilled player but unremarkable athlete, had 14 points and six rebounds all by his lonesome.
With new athletic director Jim Bartko in the building, the Bulldogs showed precisely why the actual turnout at their games continues to be thousands less than the official attendance (in this case 5,741). Why the program has been stuck in an eight-year malaise.
Fresno State wasn’t outmanned as much as it was outperformed. While the Bears spaced the floor and collected several layups on players cutting to the rim, the Bulldogs relied on jump shots and one-on-one moves.
It took a brilliant individual effort by Harris, who finished 9 of 17 from the floor, just to keep Fresno State close. And when Harris dried up much of the offense shriveled with him.
Yes, we’ve all seen this movie before. Enough times to recite much of the dialogue.
Terry: “It’s serious growing pains right now for all of us, but at the end of the day we have to stay together and stay the course. Just keep working.”
Harris: “Eventually we’re going to start winning. We just have to come together as a team.”
If last season is any indication, the Bulldogs will do just that. They’ll go on a run when Guerrero returns and pocket a few victories. Perhaps enough of them to be a factor in the Mountain West Conference. Perhaps not.
It’s just that this year was supposed to be different. At least that’s what I wrote. Instead, we’re getting more of the same.