The Fresno State Bulldogs have secured a bye next week at the Mountain West men’s basketball tournament, but how high they are seeded and who they ultimately will play in a quarterfinal matchup will be determined on what figures to be a high-anxiety final day of play within the conference.
The Bulldogs (15-15 overall, 10-7 MW) have upward mobility only if they can win at Boise State, which will be playing for a conference championship in front of a sellout crowd on its home floor on a day that all six spots at the top of the conference can change in a matter of hours. Lose, and the Bulldogs are the No. 6 seed. Win, and they could move up as high as No. 4 if Utah State loses to Colorado State, Wyoming loses at New Mexico and Nevada loses at San Diego State.
At the end of the day the Bulldogs will be somewhere in there, No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6.
But coach Rodney Terry is focused solely on the Bulldogs — a win would be their 11th in conference play, the most they have had since going 13-5 in the WAC in 2002-03. He had not given seeding, other conference matchups or a potential opponent much, if any, thought.
“We’ve got our hands full just with what’s in front of us right now,” he said. “We’re playing a Top-25 team in my mind, a team that’s as good as any team in the country on their home court.
“There’s a lot still to be played for. Like I said to our guys, the exciting thing about this time of year is it’s why you came to play at the level you came to play college basketball. In March, you’re playing meaningful games. They mean something. That’s always a great thing and a positive thing to be a part of, and that’s what we’re doing (Saturday). Both teams. We’re playing a meaningful game for both of us.”
Fresno State won the first matchup 70-64 at Save Mart Center with a similar focus. The Bulldogs were down by four with 8:38 to play but took apart Boise State at the defensive end and outscored the Broncos 18-8 the rest of the way. Boise State’s Derrick Marks, the leading scorer in the conference, had 31 points in the game, but made only one basket down the stretch. Julien Lewis chased Marks all over the floor, the Bulldogs doubled him off high ball screens and denied him touches around the lane.
With Marks shuttered, Boise State hit just 1 of its last 7 shots and 2 of its last 11. It also turned over the ball four times and ended up with just 22 points in the second half.
The 31 was a career-high against the Bulldogs, but Fresno State also has held Marks to three and five points in a freshman season he averaged 9.4 points per game, five and 30 points in a sophomore season he averaged 16.3 points and four and four points in a junior year he averaged 14.9.
And the 6-foot-3 senior again will draw a ton of attention, with a twist.
“That’s going to be a big part of the game,” Terry said. “They play fast at home in transition, and get up and down the floor. They do a good job with their pressure. They pressure more at home than they do on the road, so we’re going to have to handle the ball and take care of the basketball. We’ve done a pretty good job of that all year; our turnover ratio has been pretty good for a better part of the year. But we’ll have to take care of the ball on the road and play really solid defense.
“With Marks, nobody in our league can stop Marks one-on-one. It’s going to be by committee and you’re not going to stop him, you just have to contain him as best you can. Obviously, he went for 31 on us last time and he’s a guy that can score the basketball and he also distributes the ball well. We just have to do a great job trying to contain him.”