The Fresno State Bulldogs backed up their best half of basketball with their best game to this point in the season, dismantling Cal Poly on Saturday at both ends of the floor.
In a 73-59 victory, the Bulldogs made 58.8 percent of their shots while limiting the Mustangs to 37.3 percent. They were a plus-13 in rebounding margin, scored 36 points in the paint and that total and their shooting percentage would have been much higher had they not missed eight shots in the paint in the first half.
The exclamation point was a breakaway between-the-legs dunk by Cullen Russo off a steal with 1:51 to go.
This team has a high ceiling, and we’re not even close to how good we can really be.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
And it all came with a reminder from coach Rodney Terry – it’s only December, and still early at that. Monday is the 12th day of the month, 12 more shopping days until Christmas and 20 to 40 or so until Fresno State really wants to be playing its best basketball of the season, and it has a way to go to get there.
“This team has a high ceiling, and we’re not even close to how good we can really be,” Terry said. “I think our pace of play can be really good. I think defensively we’re getting to a point where we’re getting stops, we’re finishing possessions better, but we can talk better and we can communicate better.
“There’s a lot of room for us still to continue to grow and get better with. There are a lot of different things we can get better with. I think we’re good, but we can get better.”
But, having worked their way into roles fairly painlessly unlike a year ago, they are playing some very good basketball right now and are well ahead of the curve.
In the second half at Marquette and the victory over Cal Poly, Fresno State hit 60.5 percent of its shots while holding its opponents to 40.3 percent and that is 55.2 percent to 34.4 percent at the 3-point line. Fresno State also was a plus-17 in rebounding margin, had an assisted basket percentage of 63.3 and outscored its opponents by 30, 126-96.
Fresno State hit 58.8 percent of its shots in its victory over Cal Poly, making 30 of 51 including 10 of 19 at the 3-point line. The 58.8 is the Bulldogs’ best shooting percentage in a game under coach Rodney Terry.
The thing remembered from a season ago is the NCAA Tournament run, six wins in a row at the end of the regular season, then Las Vegas, then Denver. First one since 2001, a long time. But getting there was not easy for Fresno State, which at this time a year ago was alternating wins and losses and fragmented on and off the floor.
Forward Torren Jones was benched for one game, suspended for another and did not play in the final 13 games of the season. Rotations weren’t yet set. The Bulldogs struggled their way past The Master’s College, an NAIA team, and played poorly in a loss at Cal Poly. From the end of November to the midway point in Mountain West play, they still were searching.
The difference, Terry said, is obvious at every practice and now on the floor.
“I think these guys all like each other, and they have from the very beginning,” he said. “A lot of times with teams you have to teach and coach chemistry. We haven’t had to do that with this group. That’s why we’re able to move the ball and guys are not worried about who’s taking the shots. We don’t have any of those issues right now.
We’re definitely a group that knows what it’s doing and is willing to do whatever it takes to make everyone around them better.
Fresno State forward Paul Watson
“I think guys are not playing to the stat sheet, they’re playing to win and doing whatever it takes to win and that’s a big deal.”
Senior forward Paul Watson pointed to the Bulldogs’ consistency of effort at the defensive end, but the pieces are fitting together far more easily. Jahmel Taylor, after going 5 for 5 on 3-pointers against Cal Poly, is now second in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage at 60.8. The Bulldogs have a more consistent inside presence, with freshman Bryson Williams or Terrell Carter II. Point guard Jaron Hopkins had eight assists against the Mustangs and with 16 in the past two games is now ranked second in the Mountain West with 3.9 per game.
“We’re definitely a group that knows what it’s doing and is willing to do whatever it takes to make everyone around them better,” Watson said.
“It’s definitely a team that picks things up right away, which is good for us, but like (Terry) says we don’t want to be playing our best basketball until February and March. Right now, we’re playing pretty well, but we’re going to be playing our best basketball farther down.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. HOLY NAMES
- Wednesday: 7 p.m. at Save Mart Center (15,544)
- Records: Bulldogs 6-3, Hawks 1-8
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Holy Names is an NCAA Division II team. The Hawks played Academy of Art on Sunday night, but have struggled this season. Their lone victory in their first nine games is over Cal State Monterey Bay, though four losses have come by five points or fewer.