The other day I was sipping coffee in Old Town Clovis when someone approached me with a question many of you have been asking yourselves since Fresno State stamped its NCAA Tournament hall pass.
“How did the Bulldogs get so good so quickly?”
I had to chuckle, mostly because the process has been as long and gradual as a kayak trip to Guam. But it readily became apparent the person with whom I was having this conversation does not closely follow Fresno State sports, nor had he been to a basketball game all season.
In fact, I soon found out he hadn’t been to a Bulldogs basketball game since 2000, when Selland Arena hosted the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
While he still has fond memories of that weekend – vividly recalling Demetrius Porter’s dramatic three-pointer against Hawaii and downing Tulsa the following night – nothing the Bulldogs have done since compelled him to care.
That is, until Fresno State stormed to the Mountain West Conference tournament title Saturday in Las Vegas to claim a spot on the Big Dance floor for the first time since 2001.
Now he’s excited again. Now he’s interested. Now he’s re-engaged.
I suspect this guy isn’t alone. In fact, I suspect it’s fairly widespread. I suspect there will be thousands watching on TV on Thursday afternoon as the No. 14-seeded Bulldogs play No. 3 Utah at the Pepsi Center who wouldn’t know Cezar Guerrero from Caesar Augustus.
My point here is not to bag on Fresno State fans (oops, did that a few days ago) because every fan base at every level of sport has bandwagon leapers.
It’s to make clear what a rare opportunity this is, one that hasn’t come around for 15 years, to make Bulldogs basketball matter again in the central San Joaquin Valley.
So while the immediate concern is Utah and figuring out some way to corral 7-foot NBA-lottery-pick-to-be Jakob Poeltl – I’m giving 8 1/2 -point underdog Fresno State a 25 percent chance to pull the upset – that’s still a short-term situation.
The long-term vision must be focused on the future, on whether the Bulldogs can make March Madness a regular malady rather than a comet that appears in the sky every decade and a half before vanishing into total darkness.
“We worked really hard over the five years that I’ve been here to establish a culture that’s built for winning,” coach Rodney Terry said. “It’s been a process; it really has.”
Fresno State’s history at the NCAA Tournament has followed a peculiar but predictable pattern.
The Bulldogs went two years in a row (1981 and ’82) under Boyd Grant and then a third time in 1984 before taking a 16-year hibernation that lasted until the Jerry Tarkanian-coached teams of 2000 and ’01. (The NCAA no longer recognizes the 2000 tourney appearance, but I do. I was there.)
You don’t need me to tell you the program has been in a slumber ever since.
Even though this year’s squad is led by three seniors in Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris, Julien Lewis and Guerrero, there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off when the Bulldogs reconvene for summer workouts.
If there’s one at all.
Not only will returning players such as Karachi Edo, Paul Watson and Cullen Russo have the benefit of tournament experience, they’ll also have even more impetus to go back.
So will incoming freshmen such as Roosevelt High’s Bryson Williams, redshirts such as Nate Grimes and transfers such as Jaron Hopkins (Colorado) and Deshon Taylor (Missouri-Kansas City), who have been great practice players this season.
And if you want to dream really big, William McDowell-White. The 6-foot-5 point guard from Australia and consensus five-star prospect was in Fresno in February for an official visit and took in the victory over San Diego State. Fresno State has stiff competition for McDowell-White, including Arizona State, Kansas and Michigan State. But for the Bulldogs to even be a finalist in this sweepstakes shows how far the program has come.
“This is going to help the future of this program because now you’ve got the next wave of seniors coming up who are thinking, ‘I want to do this, too,’ ” Fresno State assistant coach Byron Jones said. “That’s what you’ve got to have.”
Although it might not seem that way to fans who’ve suddenly regained interest, these Bulldogs did not get good in a hurry. This is not a team that Terry slap-dashed together with a couple of transfers and suddenly got good.
The growth has been painstaking and sometimes painful. It took time for Terry to feel comfortable in the big chair. It took time for Harris to come into his own. It took time for Lewis and Guerrero to assimilate. It took time to build up the talent level and establish culture.
And since the program took time to construct, there’s every reason to think a sudden implosion isn’t coming.
“People are going to respect Fresno State basketball,” Harris said. “The program is back on the map. It’s going to be something the people in Fresno are proud of.”
Now that the Bulldogs are winning again, now that they’re in the national spotlight, I am all but certain Save Mart Center won’t be so empty next season. That’s human nature. Fans who were late to this year’s party will want to get their fill.
If Fresno State knocks off Utah and advances past the first round for only the third time in school history, wonderful. But even if that doesn’t happen, the success we’re seeing feels built to last.