Fresno State made up a lot of ground to get back to the NCAA Tournament, and that on-court success produced by Rodney Terry, his staff and the players they recruited to fuel a return to prominence still outpaces the growth of a basketball program that is well behind many of its Mountain West Conference rivals.
Recruiting. Travel. Training.
The Bulldogs have done it the hard way, investing less than half the money in the program as some MW schools have every year.
Athletic director Jim Bartko, in his 20 months on the job, has been trying to close that gap, raising funds to renovate the North Gym and to get the men’s and women’s programs charter flights to the more difficult places to reach in the conference.
But the schedule the Bulldogs will be targeting in 2016-17 is an area that has remained flat, and they soon could get a nudge from the conference to upgrade in the future.
Fresno State will play six nonconference basketball games at Save Mart Center, including three against teams rated in the 300s in the RPI a year ago, one against an NAIA team and one against an NCAA Division II team.
The Bulldogs, who opened practice Friday with eyes on a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, have only 15 home games, down from 18 a year ago. There are no RPI-boosting marquee matchups; the top-rated nonconference program coming into Save Mart Center finished last year at No. 243 of 351 in the RPI.
Part of the reason? Money.
“We’d love to be home,” Terry said. “It costs money to be home. If you have the money, you can stay home. We’ve never had the luxury of doing that, so we do what we do.
“We’re a blue-collar team. We roll up our sleeves, and we play with what we’ve got, and we control what we can control. We don’t complain about it. We don’t make excuses about it. We do what we do.”
Fresno State will have one of the most attractive Mountain West schedules, with Boise State, San Diego State, New Mexico, UNLV and Nevada visiting on Saturdays at Save Mart Center, as well as competitive nonconference games. But the meat of that nonconference schedule, the games in which wins mean a bump in RPI, all will be on the road, which always is a challenge. Over the past four seasons, the Bulldogs are 23-37 on the road, 46-19 at home.
At Save Mart Center, the Bulldogs will open against Texas-San Antonio on Nov. 11 and play Prairie View A&M, Lamar, Menlo, Cal Poly and Holy Names.
UTSA ended last season 5-27 and No. 347 in the RPI; Prairie View A&M was 7-24 and No. 334; Lamar was 11-19 and No. 337; and Cal Poly 10-20 and No. 243. Menlo is an NAIA program and went 10-19, and NCAA Division II Holy Names was 4-24.
We’d love to be home. It costs money to be home. If you have the money, you can stay home. We’ve never had the luxury of doing that, so we do what we do.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
Fresno State had opportunities to start a home-and-home series but could not find a match that fit competitively or in an appropriate window on the schedule – or both. Fresno State also tried to add a 16th home game but had nothing in reserve to buy a game and eventually gave up after finding no takers.
What the Bulldogs have is what they could afford – the program this season had $180,000 to schedule games.
The Bulldogs spent $165,000 to play in the Orange Express Tournament, which got them three home games against UTSA, Prairie View A&M and Lamar and a road game at Oregon State.
The game against Cal Poly is part of a home-and-home series, and the remaining $15,000 was split between Menlo, Holy Names and Cal State San Bernardino, which will come to Fresno for an exhibition Nov. 1. Each school will receive $5,000.
When Fresno State looked for a game in the Midwest to pair with a trip to Drake as part of the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge, Marquette offered $100,000. The Bulldogs took it, with that money going into the overall budget as revenue.
MW is watching
The Mountain West, which has seen its national profile slip a bit the past two seasons, is taking steps to set its membership on a more advantageous course by developing scheduling guidelines that include what for Fresno State would be a significant bump in the pool of money it has to buy games.
The conference has suggested members invest $300,000 to schedule games. It is on a list of recommendations that includes a minimum of 16 home games; playing at least three top 150 teams in the RPI and no more than one that was rated lower than No. 250; and playing at least one game in the Eastern or Central time zones to expand the reach of the conference.
The Bulldogs had $180,000 to schedule nonconference basketball games this season, well below the conference average.
The Bulldogs this season are well below the $300,000 recommendation, playing only the 15 games at Save Mart Center and playing three teams that were rated in the 300s.
“We’ve been doing around $200,000 a year, and if we have to get to $300,000, if the league ultimately mandates that, we’ll do it,” Bartko said.
According to sources familiar with the scheduling guidelines that will be implemented next season, the average pool in the Mountain West is about $230,000.
Colorado State, San Diego State and New Mexico all invested more than $350,000 to buy games.
The average in the American Athletic Conference, one of the top mid-major conferences, is about $482,000.
“That would help us to be able to afford better teams, better name teams,” Terry said. “You’re not going to buy a high-major team in here, that’s not going to happen by any stretch. But you’ll be able to be more creative with what you put together.
“Say, a Big West school or someone wanted to come here, they’d be wanting $75,000 … the going rate is $80,000 most of the time. One game. That’s a lot of money. As much as we’d like to have a lot of home games and name opponents, it costs money.”
At stake for the schools is a public reprimand from the conference and, down the line, a potential fine.
This is not a one-bid league, and it should not be perceived that way. But we have to make sure we schedule a representative nonleague schedule and win some of those games.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher
At stake for the conference and its members is the revenue pool, which took a significant hit last season when Fresno State was the only Mountain West school to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Now in the seventh year of a 14-year deal with CBS, the NCAA distributes tournament revenue to conferences through a points system, with each game a team plays counting as one unit for a period of six years. In 2011, the Mountain West accrued seven units, in 2012 it was five, in 2013 it was seven, in 2014 and ’15 it was four, and last season it was just the one unit.
And that one unit will be a drag on the conference for six years – the value of a unit changes slightly from year to year, but in 2016 it was worth $260,814.
In 2016-17, the Mountain West will lose six units from 2010 and replace it with the one unit from 2016.
In 2017-18, it will lose seven units from 2011, and the one unit in 2016 still will be a part of the equation, as will what the conference earns this season.
The difference to the MW in 2016-17 will be about $1.2 million.
Better scheduling, and wins in those games, would help boost the conference’s combined RPI, which conceivably would help get more teams into the NCAA Tournament.
“(In 2012-13) we put five out of nine teams in the league into the NCAA Tournament,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “Last year we had one. It was the first time in the history of the league that the team that won the conference, us, didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. This is not a one-bid league, and it should not be perceived that way. But we have to make sure we schedule a representative nonleague schedule and win some of those games.
1 Mountain West teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season – Fresno State
“Ourselves, New Mexico, Vegas, maybe Boise, maybe Nevada, maybe Fresno, are in a position to make sure that you schedule enough games where you can say, ‘If I win two of these three, if I win one of these four, it’s going to be really good for our program.’ To some measure, it’s relative. But the most important thing is you need to win games. If you play two teams about 150, win those two games. If you play four teams from a Power Five league, you can’t go 0-4. Those things help yourself, but they also help the perception of the league.”
Be a road warrior
Fresno State has a competitive schedule, with games against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. The problem is, all are on the road. But that’s something Fresno State has had to navigate every year.
To get its favorable schedule a year ago – lining up 18 home games for a team that included three senior guards, led by Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris, and could take advantage of a home-heavy schedule – the Bulldogs started maneuvering two years earlier.
Fresno State played in the Roundball Showcase, which, like the Orange Express, got the Bulldogs three home games with one on the road at an affordable price. Fresno State also agreed to start a home-and-home series with Pepperdine on the road in 2014-15 so it would have the return game at home last season. It started a four-year home-and-home series with Pacific on the road, playing in Stockton in back-to-back years, so that the Bulldogs could get the Tigers at Save Mart Center a year ago.
It is not a pretty process, but the end result worked. The Bulldogs went 16-2 at Save Mart Center, their .889 home-court winning percentage the best in the conference.
“Our first two years, my phone was ring, ring, ring, ring, ring,” said assistant coach Byron Jones, who handles the Bulldogs’ scheduling. “But as you get better, scheduling gets worse unless you can match it with the money to make it work for where you’re trying to go.”
We’ve been doing around $200,000 a year, and if we have to get to $300,000, if the league ultimately mandates that, we’ll do it.
Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko
To get a high-major team into Save Mart Center these days almost certainly requires a home-and-home series. In the Pacific-12 Conference, Cal is playing nine home games and a matchup against San Diego State on a neutral floor in Sacramento; Arizona is playing nine home games and a game against Gonzaga on a neutral floor in Los Angeles; Oregon is playing nine home games and has UNLV on the schedule on a neutral floor in Portland. True road games against mid-majors are rare.
Terry, when an assistant at Texas, handled the Longhorns’ scheduling. “We weren’t going to go play a Mountain West Conference school on their home court – not going to happen,” he said.
“If you’re a power BCS school, why would you leave home? And to leave home to go play against a Mountain West Conference school on their home court? There are not too many willing to do that. It’s no knock against them; that’s just what they’re able to do. They can stay home, buy games and buy them at a high level. They can spend $80,000, $100,000 for a home game – they’re not going to go on the road. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Fresno State is not likely to ever get there, but as the program grows there is room to do more.
“It’s not easy,” said Terry, who has improved the Bulldogs’ conference win total every year it has been in the Mountain West, jumping from five in 2012-13 to nine to 10 to last season’s 13. “I wish it was, and it’s a little tougher for the Bulldogs. But you know what? You control what you can control.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State men’s basketball
- 1 vs. Cal State San Bernardino (exhibition), 7 p.m.
- 11 vs. Texas-San Antonio, 7 p.m.
- 14 vs. Prairie View A&M, 7 p.m.
- 19 vs. Lamar, 11 a.m.
- 22 at Cal State Bakersfield, 7 p.m.
- 25 at Oregon State, 6 p.m.
- 30 vs. Menlo College, 5 p.m.
- 3 at Drake, TBA
- 6 at Marquette, 4:30 p.m.
- 10 vs. Cal Poly, 4 p.m.
- 14 vs. Holy Names, 7 p.m.
- 17 at Pacific, 7 p.m.
- 20 at Oregon, 8 p.m.
- 28 at New Mexico*, 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.
- 31 vs. Nevada*, 4 p.m.
- 4 vs. Wyoming*, 7 p.m.
- 7 at San Jose State*, 2 p.m.
- 11 at Air Force*, 6 p.m.
- 14 vs. Boise State*, 4 p.m.
- 18 vs. Colorado State*, 8 p.m.
- 21 at Nevada*, 3 p.m.
- 28 at Utah State*, 6 p.m.
- 1 vs. Air Force*, 7 p.m.
- 4 vs. San Diego State*, 4 p.m.
- 8 at Wyoming*, 6 p.m.
- 11 at Colorado State*, 1 p.m.
- 15 vs. San Jose State*, 7 p.m.
- 18 vs. New Mexico*, 3 p.m.
- 22 at San Diego State*, 8 p.m.
- 28 at Boise State*, 7 p.m.
- 4 vs. UNLV*, 4 p.m.
- 8-11 Mountain West tournament, TBA
*Mountain West game