Marek Warszawski

Fresno State men’s basketball in capable hands under first-year coach Justin Hutson

Bulldogs prepare for big test with No. 10 Nevada

Fresno State coach Justin Hutson discusses a Mountain West Conference matchup against No. 10 Nevada Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019 at the Save Mart Center. The Wolf Pack is the first Top 10 team to visit Fresno since No. 8 Utah in 1996.
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Fresno State coach Justin Hutson discusses a Mountain West Conference matchup against No. 10 Nevada Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019 at the Save Mart Center. The Wolf Pack is the first Top 10 team to visit Fresno since No. 8 Utah in 1996.

Half a season is enough time to determine if a basketball coach can actually coach.

In the case of Justin Hutson, the answer already feels definitive. Fresno State swished this hire. The program is on an upward trajectory.

It’s not just that the Bulldogs sit 12-3 overall and 3-0 in Mountain West play heading into Saturday’s tilt against No. 10 Nevada at the Save Mart Center. More how they’ve done it.

“We’re playing good basketball, exciting basketball, and we’ve been winning,” all-conference guard Deshon Taylor said.

Hutson inherited a fair amount of talent, along with a couple glaring deficiencies. Fresno State doesn’t possess much size up front or backcourt depth, but in Hutson’s system, at least so far, those weaknesses have been spackled over.

For the last seven years under Rodney Terry, the Bulldogs emphasized defense and rebounding more than a fluid, fast-paced offense. They constantly ranked near the bottom of Division I in 3-point attempts, which goes against every tenet of modern basketball.

That formula led to four 20-win seasons and one NCAA Tournament trip, but it didn’t reverse years of declining attendance and community interest. Which is why Terry left for UTEP.

Fresno State coach Justin Hutson is all smiles following his victorious debut: a 91-63 victory over Alaska-Anchorage at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

Hutson entered with a promising resume and the Valley ties that make most Bulldogs fans feel warm and fuzzy. Halfway through his first season, it’s clear the 47-year-old knows what he’s doing.

Despite that lack of size, Fresno State is playing better defense than it did a year ago. The Bulldogs rank 55th in D-I in defensive efficiency according to Last season they ranked 76th.

A big reason has been perimeter defense. Opponents are shooting just 29.4 percent from 3-point range against Fresno State, way down from last season’s 36.6.

“That’s an effort thing and also an emphasis,” Hutson said. “It’s a little harder when you’re smaller. When you’re long, you can be late and still take away those shots. When you’re smaller, you’ve got to make sure you’re out there. You can’t make up for mistakes.”

Given Hutson’s history at San Diego State, where he was the architect of the Aztecs’ smothering defense, that was perhaps expected. More surprising has been the metamorphosis on offense, as well as the deft way he manages and entrusts his players.

Gone are the Bulldogs’ deliberate half-court sets that often resulted in one-on-one play late in the shot clock. These Bulldogs are more willing to push the pace and have more freedom to shoot, especially from the perimeter.

Fresno State attempted 17.1 3-pointers per game last season, 326th in D-I. This year that number is up to 26.5, which ranks 65th. Although the accuracy is down slightly (38.3 percent from 39.4), simple math tells you more 3s at a near-equal rate equals more points.

Most of college basketball (as well as the NBA) figured that out years ago. Under Hutson, the Bulldogs finally have, too.

“I feel like everybody has more confidence in their game – it’s more freedom as well and more shots going up,” Taylor said. “This coaching staff has brought more confidence in a lot of our players and I feel that confidence brings freedom. It brings trust, too. The coaches have to trust you to make those shots, and when they trust you it’s more confidence you can make them.”

Deshon Taylor talks about Fresno State's Jan. 12 matchup with No. 10 Nevada. Taylor is averaging 16.8 points and 5.0 assists, missing four games with a dislocated left elbow.

A prime example is senior guard Braxton Huggins. The New Mexico State transfer is attempting 8.0 3s per game and making them at a 41.1 percent clip. It’s why he ranks third in the MW in scoring at 18.9 points per game.

Huggins was at his 33-point best Wednesday night in Logan, Utah, where his off-the-dribble 3 with 5.5 seconds left gave Fresno State its only lead of the game in a 78-77 victory over Utah State.

Taylor, Hutson’s best two-way player, deserves credit for accepting a new role. The senior’s scoring (16.8 per game) and percentages are down slightly, but he has made up for that by becoming a better playmaker. His 5.1 assists are nearly double last year’s 2.6.

“It’s a thin balance between (Taylor) driving in and getting contact and making shots and also finding the open man on the perimeter,” Hutson said. “We’re asking him to continue to make better decisions, whether that’s for himself or for his teammates, and he’s doing a good job.”

The Fresno State Bulldogs, 12-3 and 3-0 and in first place in the Mountain West Conference, plays No. 10 Nevada Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019 at the Save Mart Center. Thee Wolf Pack is 15-1, 2-1 in conference play with a loss at New Mexico.

Speaking of playmakers, Fresno State has a true point guard in Noah Blackwell for the first time in eons. It’s been decades (does the name Rafer Alston ring a bell?) since the Bulldogs had someone so adept at running the pick and roll.

Hutson’s coaching acumen was on full display Wednesday night. The Bulldogs had several factors going against them: the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum is a notoriously difficult place to play; Utah State grabbed an early lead; and Fresno State battled a sizable free-throw deficit and foul trouble. Especially after Nate Grimes, the only legitimate interior presence, picked up his fourth early in the second half.

Despite the tall odds, Hutson never altered his message. Make the extra pass. Make multiple penetrations per possession. Don’t take tough shots. Lock in on defense. Avoid silly fouls.

“If we stick with it, we’re good enough,” Hutson said. “And the guys did.”

That’s good coaching. The Bulldogs are in capable hands.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.