Fresno State is back on the road, at Drake on Saturday at the Knapp Center in Des Moines, Iowa, and hints at having played some solid basketball while fitting the pieces together.
The Bulldogs (4-2) have won two games in a row, and somewhat paradoxically they have done it without much production from Cullen Russo, the enigmatic senior forward who touched every part of a season-opening victory over Texas-San Antonio but has more or less floated through the past five games.
In that win over the Roadrunners, Russo had a team-leading 23 points and 10 rebounds and added two assists, two blocks and one steal.
At some time, he’s going to have to understand that his approach every day has to be the same way, and I’m not saying something right now that I haven’t said to him. It has to be approached at a different level.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry on senior Cullen Russo
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Since then, he scored two points in a victory over Lamar, seven in a victory at Oregon State and five in a win over Menlo College.
Over the five games, he has taken only 27 shots and is averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing between 20 minutes in the victory over Menlo and 35 minutes in a loss to Prairie View A&M; just 26.4 minutes per game.
In the opener, he played a team-high 36 minutes.
The answer is simple, but at the same time it’s complicated.
“Cullen just needs to get lost into playing hard on defense and just understanding what his role is and what we need him to do,” coach Rodney Terry said. “If you go back and pull some footage out from last year, he was the same kind of player at this time a year ago right now. Matter of fact, he was doing a lot more sitting than playing because of it. Karachi Edo was playing.
“At some time, he’s going to have to understand that his approach every day has to be the same way, and I’m not saying something right now that I haven’t said to him. It has to be approached at a different level. At some point, hopefully, it clicks for him. It did last year when we needed it to, and I think it will.”
Russo, who was the first Mountain West Player of the Week this season, was not made available to the media after the victory over Menlo.
But it would benefit Russo and the Bulldogs if he can get his game going again as they start a two-game trip that will conclude with a game Tuesday at Marquette.
In leading the Bulldogs to a victory over Texas-San Antonio in the season opener, Cullen Russo played 36 minutes, scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, all team highs. In the past five games, he has averaged 26.4 minutes, 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds.
The 6-foot-9 senior was playing 21.5 minutes through six games a year ago, averaging 6.2 points and 5.5 rebounds – very close, as Terry said, to his most recent five games. The difference is expectations are much higher after playing a key role down the stretch of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament run last season, and his role is more vital with Edo out through the fall semester after not meeting NCAA continuing-eligibility standards.
Drake is just 1-6 and has lost four in a row to Iona, UC Davis and Alaska-Anchorage at the Great Alaska Shootout and a loss at DePaul.
The last three of those losses have come by six, five and two points, the Bulldogs leading for all but the final 40 seconds in their loss last time out to the Blue Demons.
But Marquette, at 5-2 and scoring 86.7 points per game, is a much more daunting challenge – the type of résumé-building win the Bulldogs need, especially after dropping a game to Prairie View A&M at the Save Mart Center.
The Bulldogs, if Russo is not productive with his minutes, get young very quickly, and matchups can become a challenge.
Against Menlo College, sophomore Sam Bittner played 17 minutes, going scoreless but grabbing three rebounds. He played 18 minutes against Lamar, 15 in a loss at Bakersfield and 10 at Oregon State, and he has scored just two points in six games.
Redshirt freshman Nate Grimes played nine minutes toward the end of the victory over the Menlo Oaks but had played only 10 over the three previous games.
Hopefully he understands the urgency and that he doesn’t have many more games. You have to play with an urgency, especially being a senior.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry on Cullen Russo
Bryson Williams, the freshman from Roosevelt High, also is in that mix of bigs and has logged some productive minutes, averaging 6.2 points and 4.0 rebounds.
“We have a lot of young players in Bryson and Nate, and we’re getting them seasoned,” Terry said. “They’re not quite ready to be able to handle that load out there. You have to have an experienced guy with them.”
Early in the season, Russo was expected to give them time to develop, and he has – just not in the way Terry and the Bulldogs had hoped or imagined.
And Fresno State, after its trip to the Midwest, still has testy games against Cal Poly and at Pacific and at Oregon before Edo is expected back.
“Hopefully, he understands the urgency and that he doesn’t have many more games,” Terry said of Russo. “You have to play with an urgency, especially being a senior.
“But he looks a lot like he did at this same time last year. He’s just logging more minutes because we don’t have the ability to completely sit him down at times. We have, with Sam. He just has to continue to buy in to what we’re asking him to do, and he’ll be fine.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. DRAKE
- Saturday: Noon at Knapp Center (7,152)
- Records: Bulldogs 4-2; Drake 1-6
- Webcast/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940)
- Of note: Drake, also nicknamed the Bulldogs, fell 77-75 at DePaul on Wednesday night. The team’s one win this season came 76-61 over Simpson on Nov. 19.