Fresno State forward Cullen Russo is back in practice after a four-game suspension for a violation of team rules, but coach Rodney Terry wasn’t quite ready to commit to putting the 6-foot-9 senior on the floor Wednesday night for a critical Mountain West Conference matchup against San Jose State at the Save Mart Center.
“If he plays or not, that will be a game-time decision,” Terry said. “But it’s a learning experience for him. It’s never too late to have a learning experience, and I think he understood what that entailed, and I think he’ll be better for it moving forward.”
Russo has had a turbulent season and has lost playing time since the start of conference play, his minutes falling to 22.5 from 30.2 in the Bulldogs’ first 13 games. He then missed three games while taking care of an ongoing academic issue before coming back to go scoreless in 12 minutes in a Jan. 28 loss at Utah State in which he went 0 of 4.
San Jose State will come to the Save Mart Center on Wednesday with a four-game winning streak working, its first in conference play since 1996. The Spartans haven’t won five conference games in a row since 1983.
He was suspended following that game.
Russo was not made available for comment following practice Tuesday, but with senior Karachi Edo out with a right ankle injury suffered last week, the Bulldogs could use an additional player.
After Edo went down at Wyoming, the Bulldogs had to fly in redshirt freshman Nate Grimes to play at Colorado State. Grimes had not played since a Dec. 14 rout of Holy Names, a Division II program, and had not been traveling to road games.
But is Russo better now than he was before the suspension? Teammate Paul Watson is confident Russo is ready.
“He’s coming in with a whole new approach, a whole new mindset and he’s willing to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful,” Watson said. “He’s a two-feet-in guy right now. He’s definitely there mentally.
“He brings a lot of versatility to the team. He has definitely been missed. He does a lot of different things for us as far as rebounding. He’s definitely a good playmaker at that four spot, being able to pass the ball, and a finisher around the rim. He doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for his defense, but he’s always a guy that seems to be in the right spot at the right time. He does a lot of different things for us.”
He’s a two-feet-in guy right now. He’s definitely there mentally.
Fresno State forward Paul Watson, on teammate Cullen Russo
San Jose State was not a particularly good game for Russo the first time around, but that could be said for all of the Bulldogs.
When Fresno State (14-10, 6-7 in the MW) last saw the Spartans, they were 0-2 in MW play, but they come into the Save Mart Center ahead of the Bulldogs in the standings, both teams in a group vying for a top five seed (and a first-round bye) in the conference tournament.
San Jose State is tied for fifth with San Diego State at 6-6, the Bulldogs tied for seventh with Wyoming at 6-7.
Fresno State can get there, but it must be better with the ball than it has been the past two weeks and much better than it was on Jan. 7 when losing at San Jose State 69-62.
When we haven’t taken case of the basketball, that’s when we have really struggled.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
The Bulldogs blew a 15-point first-half lead in that game, turning it over a season-high 23 times. Those miscues led to 29 of the Spartans’ 69 points (42 percent). After hitting 53.8 percent of their shots in the first half, the Bulldogs were just 11 of 29 in the second, including 1 of 6 from the 3-point line with 12 turnovers.
They missed 20 shots at the rim in that game.
“We didn’t take care of the basketball in that game,” Terry said. “We had a lot of empty possessions. But you give them credit. They’re a good team. San Jose is like us – they’re like what we were, an upstart program. They’re building their program into a good program in the Mountain West Conference.
“When we haven’t taken care of the basketball, that’s when we have really struggled, especially on the road and for that matter, at home. When we turn the ball over, it doesn’t translate very well for us in terms of how the game turns out. If we take care of the basketball, then we’ll be in position to be successful.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. SAN JOSE STATE
- Wednesday: 7 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 14-11, 6-7 Mountain West; Spartans 13-10, 6-6
- Webcast/radio: Mountain West Network (themwc.com)/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Notable: Of the Bulldogs’ setbacks in Mountain West play, the 69-62 loss at San Jose State on Jan. 7 has to be the most irksome. Fresno State led by 15 with 3:50 to go in the first half and had a chance to push it to 17 or 18. It then played one of its worst halves of the season, hitting 37.9 percent of its shots with 12 turnovers. The Bulldogs scored just 25 points over the final 20 minutes. Gary Williams Jr. led the Spartans with 18 points and Brandon Clarke added 15 and affected the Bulldogs’ offense with five blocks while altering several other drives into the paint. Fresno State made only 21 of 41 shots at the rim, either layups or dunks.