Fresno State has had its problems defending since it lost point guard Jaron Hopkins with a right foot injury and on Thursday in the quarterfinal round of the Mountain West men's basketball tournament the Bulldogs get San Diego State, a team on a six-game winning streak that can score points in rapid succession in transition and in half-court offense.
It doesn't appear to be a great matchup for the Bulldogs despite holding the higher seed (No. 4 to the Aztecs' No. 5) and winning both matchups in the regular season. The oddsmakers in town have taken note, making Fresno State a 3-point underdog.
But the Bulldogs are in with a chance, even without Hopkins, if they again can turn San Diego State into a jump shooting team.
In the Bulldogs' 77-73 victory at San Diego State, coach Rodney Terry had to mix in some 2-3 zone to get it done against a team intent on getting to the rim, but it did the trick.
Fresno State was able to cut off most straight-line drives and cut down on fouls. This is what the Aztecs' first-half shot chart looked like:
- Layups and dunks: 11 of 14
- Jump shots: 1 of 8
- 3-point shots: 1 of 2
- Total: 13 of 24, 54.2 percent
- Points in the paint: 22
- Free throws: 13 of 21
Compared with the second half:
- Layups and dunks: 4 of 6
- Jump shots: 4 of 10
- 3-point shots: 2 of 7
- Total: 10 of 23, 43.5 percent
- Points in the paint: 14
- Free throws: 11 of 15
The Bulldogs were down by 10 with 14:01 to go in that game but became the only Mountain West team to win at San Diego State this season. And the Aztecs weren't just getting by the rest; their eight home conference victories came by an average of 20.9 points including a 38-point win over UNLV.
With Hopkins out for the season, that zone defense can be an important tool for Fresno State at the Mountain West Tournament. After Terry brought it out of mothballs, the Aztecs hit just two of their next nine shots; five attempts were jumpers and three were from the 3-point line.
The Bulldogs rolled the zone out briefly in a loss at New Mexico to end the regular season, but not for long.
So, Coach Terry, what's the plan against San Diego State?
"You just have to do what you do in terms of the way you play. We know we have to sit down and try to get back and get our defense set. They're a team that can score in transition. We have to try to keep them off the glass. They're a really good rebounding team.
"They have big guards that like to drive downhill and can score the ball in transition. They put a lot of pressure on you defensively because they're a really talented group and they're shooting the ball really well right now."
The Aztecs have hit 47.9 percent of their shots in the six-game winning streak, up from 45.4 in their first 23 games.
But the 3-point number has remained the same — 34.1 percent, just eighth in the conference — and even in that winning streak the Aztecs have had some poor games shooting the basketball when not getting into the paint.
They were 6 of 20 at Air Force, 30 percent..
They were 1 of 16 against Boise State, 6.3 percent.
In the two regular-season games against the Bulldogs, San Diego State on jumpers and 3s made just 18 of 55 shots, 32.7 percent. Fresno State won the matchup at the Save Mart Center 79-61.
"We know they're coming off a six-game winning streak, just beat Nevada at home," said Fresno State guard Deshon Taylor, who on Tuesday was selected first-team All-Mountain West.
"They feel like they can go in and win the tournament, as well. We know we just have to go in there and keep fighting, play hard, and just try to keep doing the things that we did to beat them the first two times."
Deshon Taylor on the tournament: "There are a couple of guys on our team that haven't been there. Ray (Bowles Jr.), coming in from Pacific, I really want to get it done mostly for him. He hasn't really come from a winning program, so I'm just trying to get that done for him."
NIT, looking ahead
Fresno State is one of only eight West Coast schools to play in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT in back-to-back seasons, and while the Bulldogs obviously are gunning for a conference tournament title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament they could this week improve their position for an at-large spot in the NIT.
Any regular-season champion that loses its conference tournament and does not gain a spot in the NCAA Tournament is guaranteed a spot in the NIT, so the more No. 1 seeds from the 32 Division I conference that win this week the better for the Bulldogs.
Through Tuesday there have been 12 conferences to crown a tournament champion, with six No. 1 seeds losing. One is the Big Ten's Michigan State, which is an NCAA lock.
Fresno State last season had a strong NIT resume: it had eight wins against Top 100 teams in the NCAA RPI ratings. The Bulldogs this season have three Top 100 wins, are No. 102 in the RPI and No. 73 in the kenpom.com ratings.
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
No. 4 Fresno State vs. No. 5 San Diego State
- Thursday: 2:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
- TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM ESPN 940)
- Records: Fresno State 21-10, 11-7 in MW, Aztecs 19-10, 11-7
- Of note: The Bulldogs beat San Diego State in both regular-season meetings, winning 77-73 at Viejas Arena on Jan. 17 and 79-61 at the Save Mart Center on Feb. 6. The Aztecs, though, enter the Mountain West Tournament off six consecutive victories, the longest active winning streak in the conference. That run includes a 94-56 victory over UNLV, the 38-point margin the largest in a Mountain West game this season. Aztecs senior Trey Kell, who has had some big games against the Bulldogs, missed the Feb. 6 meeting with an ankle injury. He has averaged 17.6 points over his past five regular-season games against Fresno State with 4.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists. In his career, he has averaged 10.3 points per game. In its six-game winning streak, San Diego State has hit 47.9 percent of its shots in averaging 78.3 points while limiting its opponents to a 41.4 field goal percentage and 64.3 points per game.