Fresno State does not enter this week’s Mountain West Conference men’s basketball tournament as heavyweight champion.
That distinction belongs to San Diego State, which went 16-2 during the regular season.
But for the first time in years, Fresno State doesn’t have to morph into the hardwood version of Buster Douglas to knock out the program’s 15-year NCAA Tournament drought.
The proverbial puncher’s chance no longer applies. The Bulldogs simply have to box.
I’m not predicting Fresno State will win three games this week in Las Vegas, cut down the Thomas & Mack Center nets and receive automatic entry into the Big Dance.
I’m saying it’s entirely possible.
Was it possible last year, the year before and the year before that? Sure, in a Douglas vs. Mike Tyson sort of way. This time is different. The Bulldogs can win this thing without having to land any lucky haymakers.
Compared to where Fresno State began in the conference, these are Manute Bol-like strides.
Some of that is improvement; another part is timing. While the Bulldogs have gotten better every year since joining the conference, their conference win totals increasing from five in 2012-13 to nine in 2013-14 to 10 in 2014-15 to 13 this season, the Mountain West has steadily gotten worse.
In 2013, Fresno State’s first year in the league, the conference sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, three went and a fourth (Colorado State) had a good argument. This year, there’s every indication the Mountain West will be a one-bid league.
Even San Diego State, with its 44 RPI, probably gets squeezed out if the Aztecs don’t win three games in Vegas. The Bulldogs, with their 82 RPI, most certainly do.
Which makes the conference’s postseason tournament a true winner-take-all affair.
What makes me think Fresno State could be the one celebrating come Saturday evening? Here are three reasons:
▪ Momentum. The Bulldogs have won six straight and eight of nine, a stretch that includes a hard-fought victory over San Diego State at Save Mart Center and three road wins. The only loss came in overtime at Nevada.
▪ Leadership. Between conference Player of the Year Marvelle Harris, Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis, Fresno State has a triumvirate of seniors in the backcourt. As we’ve seen late in the year, they don’t get rattled.
▪ Chemistry. When Torren Jones, Karachi Edo and Paul Watsonmissed a stretch of games (Jones remains out), this team could’ve folded like origami. In past years, it would’ve. Instead, players like Cullen Russo, Jahmel Taylor and Lewis assumed larger roles and spearheaded key wins.
Fresno State’s chemistry really came to the fore in close games. Despite their second-place finish, the Bulldogs’ scoring margin ranked only fourth (plus-4.5 points) behind San Diego State (8.2), Boise State (7.8) and potential quarterfinal opponent UNLV (5.2).
The reason? Fresno State went 6-0 (5-0 in the conference) in games decided by three points or fewer. Winning one-possession games is a sign of a team that plays together and doesn’t get flustered when tensions build.
“Our guys, they keep their poise and they keep playing,” coach Rodney Terry said. “(When) you’re able to win or grit out games like that, you’re a team that’s together and playing for one another. That’s what we’ve been able to do.”
Now that I’ve built up your confidence in the Bulldogs, time cast a few doubts. Starting with their recent postseason performances.
Remember the 2000 Western Athletic Conference tournament at Selland Arena? Demetrius Porter’s double-overtime buzzer beater in the semifinals? Fans storming the court after the finals victory against nationally ranked Tulsa, a team that went to the Elite Eight?
That was the last time Fresno State cut down any nets, or even played in a tournament final. (Jerry Tarkanian’s 2001 squad went to the NCAAs as an at-large, losing to Hawaii in the WAC semifinals.)
Since then, one could say the Bulldogs have been drawn and quartered at conference tournaments in that eight of their past nine trips resulted in quarterfinal losses. What happened the ninth time? They lost in the first round.
Even though Fresno State has upped its conference win total every year since joining the Mountain West, postseason success has proven elusive. Three trips to Thomas & Mack have produced one measly first-round win.
So if you’re going off history, the Bulldogs have less chance than General Custer at Little Bighorn.
Fortunately for Fresno State, the tournament is being played in the present tense. And at present, no team is hotter than the Bulldogs.
There is no easy path to Saturday’s final. It’s probable Fresno State will have to beat UNLV on its home court (for a second time and third overall), then get past a talented Boise State squad that beat the Bulldogs by double digits in their only meeting this season.
Clear those hurdles, and San Diego State likely stands in the way. The Aztecs haven’t won the Mountain West tournament since 2011 but have made six straight NCAA trips.
The Bulldogs would certainly be underdogs if they meet San Diego State in Saturday’s final. But this year, Fresno State doesn’t need a surprise, devastating uppercut. Just a few jabs that land flush to the chin.
NO. 2 FRESNO STATE VS. NO. 7 UNLV/NO. 10 AIR FORCE
- Thursday: 6 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
- Records: Bulldogs 22-9, 13-5 MW; Rebels 8-10, 17-14; Falcons 14-17, 5-13
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940)