Fresno State Basketball

Bulldogs pushing fan engagement, support for Hutson and basketball program

Bulldogs’ Hutson ready to go

Fresno State coach Justin Hutson and the Bulldogs open their season against Alaska-Anchorage at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. The former San Diego State assistant discusses the season ahead.
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Fresno State coach Justin Hutson and the Bulldogs open their season against Alaska-Anchorage at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. The former San Diego State assistant discusses the season ahead.

Justin Hutson has a story. So, too, does Mark Hutson. Also, Otis Jennings.

That’s the Fresno State Bulldogs’ new basketball coach, who makes his debut Tuesday night; his father, a Valley high school legend who banked more than 500 coaching victories on his way into the Kern County Sports Hall of Fame; and one of the best players to ever come out of Bakersfield High, where a good chunk of that Hutson family resume was written.

It’s the same story, three ways.

It’s East High and Bakersfield, a big game in town, and things are not going well in the first half for Hutson, Hutson or Jennings.

They’re down at the break.

Fresno State coach Justin Hutson is all smiles following his victorious debut: a 91-63 victory over Alaska-Anchorage at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

Before entering the locker room, Mark Hutson pauses to take a deep breath. “I’m a little upset, so I back off a little bit,” he recalls.

When he opens the door to the locker room, the Drillers players already were in there and so, too, was Justin, who was just 7 or 8 years old at the time, but sat on the bench during his father’s games and watched intently every detail of play.

“Justin, he was very comfortable with us,” says Jennings, a 6-foot-9 center who went on to play college basketball at Washington State. “He was always around. When we went on road trips he was with us, so he didn’t have any problem voicing his opinions.”

Perhaps, a little too comfortable.

“We were all in the locker room and people were upset,” Jennings says. “We should be up, and Justin just started yelling, ‘Otis, the dunk is there, just turn around and dunk the ball, just turn around, come on, turn around … the dunk is there.’

“His dad came in just then and said, ‘OK, Justin, you have a seat. I’ve got this …’ “

The young Hutson wasn’t quite done.

“He says, ‘Dad, tell him to dunk it,’ “ Mark Hutson says, chuckling. “I told him, ‘Justin, I’ll get to it …’

“It kind of relaxed the team because everybody in the room started cracking up, everybody except Otis. But we went back out and won the game.”

Jennings, years later, can’t help but laugh, too.

They’re the best of friends, all these years later.

“He was coaching in the eighth grade, trying to fire up the big fella,” Jennings says. “He had court vision back then. But that has been his thing. He’s a basketball junkie. He could see the game, knew the game, knew what guys should do.

“He had a good eye back then – and the dunk was there. I think I went back out and followed his instructions, too.”

Justin Hutson has heard that story hundreds of times, but claims no recollection.

“I was 7 or 8 years old. I don’t remember it …”

Hutson pauses, then smiles.

“But it sounds like me.”

Building a home court

Hutson opens his first season at Fresno State on Tuesday against Alaska-Anchorage at the Save Mart Center.

He got to Fresno State from San Diego State, where he was an assistant under coach Steve Fisher, who flipped a terrible program into a perennial winner and in 18 seasons went 386-209 with the Aztecs, taking them to the NCAA Tournament eight times.

Hutson other stops have been at UNLV, Cal Poly, Cal State Bakersfield and Bakersfield High.

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Fresno State guard Deshon Taylor, center, was a first-team All-Mountain West selection last season when averaging 17.8 points and 1.5 steals per game, ranking fifth and tied for third in the conference. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

At many stops he’s had good fan support – a challenge at Fresno State where the season-ticket base has steadily dwindled over the past five years:

  • 2014: 4,694

  • 2015: 4,134

  • 2016: 3,970

  • 2017: 4,045

  • 2018: 4,004

Fresno State is on a pace to perhaps surpass those numbers this season and it has followed through with initiatives to get more fans into the Save Mart Center, which started when Hutson was hired to replace Rodney Terry, who never captured the community despite winning 20 or more games four times and left after seven seasons for Texas-El Paso.

Over the summer, free public wi-fi was added to the Save Mart Center, a significant add for a building that was opened in 2003 and is showing its age.

There also is a significant push to engage Fresno State students. They get in free and can bring a guest, yet attendance in the student section for years has been sparse.

The band will move closer to the floor.

DJ Kay Rich will be a fixture in the student section and an in-game host (Kimberly Marquez) will drive engagement with the crowd.

Fresno State forward Sam Bittner, center, looks for an opening in the New Mexico defense in the Bulldogs’ victory over the Lobos in January. Bittner was one of the top 3-point shooters in the Mountain West Conference last season, hitting 39 of 81 shots (48.1 percent). ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

“There has really been a focus on the energy in the building,” says Stephen Trembley, Fresno State director of new media.

Fresno State also is building Hut’s House, a party zone in the student section.

Hutson since his hire has met with sororities and fraternities, with the associated students and other on-campus student groups.

“We’re out, man,” Hutson says. “Me and my staff have been out since we’ve been here. We’ve been everywhere. We’re trying to get some excitement going and let them know that we can’t do it without them.”

Up-tempo basketball

The Bulldogs, who were picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West Conference in a preseason media poll, also will play a more up-tempo game than in the past under Terry, pushing the ball up the floor in transition.

The backcourt is a strength, with one of the best players in the Mountain West in guard Deshon Taylor and transfers Braxton Huggins (New Mexico State) and Noah Blackwell (Long Beach State).

Taylor was a first-team all-conference selection last season, ranking fifth in the conference in scoring with 17.8 points per game along with 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.5 steals.

“We’ve got guys that can shoot,” Hutson says. “We want to get out in transition and run, attack. The key is to get them to take good ones and not turn it over.”

The Bulldogs coach is hoping that style will result in better attendance at games and a better atmosphere in the building. Fresno State, despite winning 20-plus games last season for a third year in a row, averaged just 6,033 attendance at Save Mart Center. It ranked seventh in the Mountain West by average attendance and by percentage of seats filled.

“It has to become a home-court advantage,” Hutson says. “Our conference has home-court advantages. We have a conference full of home-court advantages in areas that are remote areas that (has) everybody revolved around the university.

“We have a great college town here. Everybody loves the Bulldogs. The Red Wave is there. We want to get them out and be loud and proud.”

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The Red Wave greets Fresno State basketball coach Boyd Grant as he and his team return from an NCAA regional loss to Louisiana Tech and Karl Malone in Memphis. Paul Kuroda Fresno Bee file

Red Wave rides again?

There is another story, more pressing now.

As a senior at Bakersfield High, Jennings was recruited by Fresno State and coach Boyd Grant, this back in the early 1980s, when the Bulldogs piled up the wins and played in front of full houses at Selland Arena downtown.

“One time, he came in and Ron Adams was there at the time,” Jennings says. “They were going somewhere in L.A. to play and they said they were going to bring the Red Wave through, the buses, so I could see the kind of support they got.

“He didn’t do it, and I think my neighbors at the time are glad he didn’t. I remember those Boyd Grant days with the Red Wave. Justin, he’s looking to rekindle that.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada