Cezar Guerrero and Julien Lewis, the Fresno State guards, started their college basketball careers in the Big 12, at Oklahoma State and at Texas, so they have dealt with some crowds when wearing the wrong colored uniforms.
The raucous. The loud. The rude. They know how difficult crowds can be to contend with, and how hard it is to try to steal energy that is directed at the home team, and, somewhat surprisingly, both pointed to venues outside the Big 12 among the toughest.
San Diego State got a nod.
New Mexico got another.
Whether that type of atmospheric pressure on road teams can develop for Guerrero, Lewis and the Bulldogs at the Save Mart Center is an open question, to be determined. But the athletic department is taking steps to try to engage and energize its student fan base at the seven remaining home games starting Saturday against Wyoming, which is the game outside what is the biggest basketball game that the Bulldogs have played in quite some time.
Fresno State has won four games in a row, the longest active streak in the Mountain West and is tied for first place in the Mountain West. The Bulldogs are 4-1 in conference play. The Cowboys are 4-1, as is New Mexico, which plays Boise State on Sunday. All three have a chance to get to 5-1, but only two and maybe only one will get there.
Fresno State is hoping the scenario is the perfect driver for marketing efforts, the highlight a College Night promotion for each of the schools on campus. On Saturday, for Ag Fest, it is the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, to be followed by the Lyles College of Engineering, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, the College of Health and Human Services, the College of Social Sciences, the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Science and Math.
Someone in the student section will win a GoPro camera, and everyone with a ticket will be eligible to win one of eight iPads that will be given away every five minutes or so.
“It’s kind of cool, just the way that it worked out,” said Paul Ladwig, senior associate athletic director for external relations. “Team is in first. Team is on a four-game winning streak. Students come back this week. The prizes and things that we’re going to give away, it all comes together in one package.”
The payout could be substantial for the program and its prospects. And it would come against the Cowboys, who are ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll.
“I think it’d mean a lot to our guys, having their peers come out and support them,” coach Rodney Terry said. “I think anytime you have that type of energy in the building, guys are going to feed off of that.”
The Bulldogs have to contend with forward Larry Nance Jr., the preseason Mountain West Player of the Year, and a trio of guards who can put pressure on a defensive soft spot.
In a 72-66 loss in Laramie a year ago, the Bulldogs struggled to defend the dribble and stay in front of the Cowboys’ guards. In the second half, after Nance went down with a knee injury, they zipped through the Bulldogs and into the lane where they got either layups or were fouled.
Wyoming shot 38 free throws in the second half — more than all but four Fresno State opponents attempted in full games during the season.
This season, Wyoming is one of the most efficient teams in the conference, tied with Air Force for second and tied for 41st in Division I in points per possession at 1.07. The Cowboys have hit 49.4% of their shots, leading the conference and ninth in the nation.
“We’re going to have to really work hard defensively staying in front of the basketball,” Terry said. “These guys, they don’t turn the ball over. They take care of the basketball and they play well together. They’ve been playing together for a while and they have a good feel about who they are and what they’re trying to get done.”
The Bulldogs are hoping Wyoming will have more to contend with as well.
Fresno State makes 2,000 student tickets available to every home game free of charge, though the past few years maybe a couple of hundred have been used each game.
“We know that when the student section is full and rocking it changes the atmosphere for the rest of our fans. The younger fans get the Red Wave fired up as well and the whole building has a whole different atmosphere to it,” Ladwig said.
“It has been full-bore ahead on day-to-day contact, social-media contact and reminding them that there’s something special for them if they come to the game. Obviously, starting Saturday is a big deal for us and filling up that student section and the lower bowl is always our goal. The students are back on campus. We’re on campus walking the quad, talking to students. Time-Out is out there. Our abilities to make sure they know there are basketball games and they’re free, starting Saturday is going to be our first College Night. We’ve been working within the college, faculty and staff to have a special ticket price for them to come, and then we’re working with the students within that college to have special incentives for them. That’s been going really well on the faculty/staff side. We’ll see what happens on the student side.”