Fresno State is doing more with less these days, racking up Mountain West Conference victories with an injury-depleted lineup, but Rodney Terry would still prefer having more.
When someone (not I, said the fly) asked Terry if he “would take” his team’s recent 4-1 stretch despite missing key players, the fifth-year coach bit and spit out the question.
“I think I’d take all my bodies,” Terry replied following Saturday’s 75-68 triumph over Utah State, which lifted Fresno State into a second-place tie in the MW standings. “I’d take a healthy team, that’s what I’d take.”
Terry should soon be getting his wish.
Karachi Edo returned following a four-game absence and played a solid 23 minutes off the bench against Utah State. The junior’s taped-up left wrist did not appear to hamper his ability to dunk, block shots or initiate the fast break.
Paul Watson and Torren Jones watched in street clothes, but there are rumblings one or both could be back Wednesday night against 10th-place Air Force as the Bulldogs try to accomplish something they haven’t done this season: win three straight MW games.
Consider it a dress rehearsal for next month in Las Vegas, where Fresno State will have to do that over three days to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
Yes, it’s been that long.
The Bulldogs shouldn’t have a problem securing a MW tournament first-round bye and are in good position to finish with a No. 2 or 3 seed, which would mean avoiding San Diego State until the final.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Four regular-season games remain, time Fresno State needs to get re-adjusted to playing with its starting frontcourt.
The Bulldogs that went 9-4 in nonconference and 5-4 over the first half of league play are not the same team as the one we’ve seen the last two weeks.
Fresno State at full-strength, with Edo, Jones and Watson, did most of its damage on the offensive glass and scoring in transition.
Without that trio the Bulldogs – back to being the undersized bunch we used to see under Terry – have gotten by with hustle and general scrappiness. Marvelle Harris and Cullen Russo found more space in the half court to operate, Cezar Guerrero rediscovered his shooting stroke and Jahmel Taylor and Sam Bittner each logged their first extended minutes.
Starting in seven straight games, Russo is now the team’s second most-reliable scorer. Guerrero and Taylor are suddenly hitting three-pointers, something the team has struggled to do all season.
It makes you wonder what kind of a team Fresno State will be with all its pieces, and how those pieces will reassemble.
“We’ll be a team that plays to our strength, which is depth,” Terry said. “We can play a lot of different ways and play a lot of different combinations.”
You could certainly make the argument the Bulldogs will be better off for what they’ve been through.
Taylor has already shown he can make clutch shots. (See the Wyoming game.) Maybe next time Bittner gets an open look in a big spot, he has enough confidence through experience not to pass it up. (See the Nevada game.)
“In a way I think a lot of guys have stepped up and shown that they’re capable of doing things and helping out the team,” said Harris, who continues to rank third in the MW in scoring while leading the league in assists.
“By their absence I think it helped a lot of guys feel confident and made us a better team.”
Fresno State, due in large part to aggressive man-to-man defense, also owns the distinction of being the MW’s most foul-prone team.
Meaning the more bodies they have at their disposal the better. Terry made that point himself.
“We foul a lot,” he said, in what has to be a rare admission for a basketball coach.
The Bulldogs (18-9, 9-5 MW) began the season with their deepest, most talented roster in nearly a decade, and thus far you’d have to say they’ve lived up to that billing.
Injuries to Edo, Watson and Jones, whose medical condition has not been disclosed by the university, threatened to derail that train. But since a lethargic road loss to San Jose State on Feb. 2, Terry’s team has played its best basketball shorthanded.
Fresno State has already shown it can do more with less. The next step will be doing more with more.