Fresno State, coming off a loss at Colorado State, is in a good spot to avoid back-to-back losses in Mountain West play and recapture some momentum going into a rough stretch of men’s basketball games.
Wyoming on Wednesday at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie, Wyo., comes with its challenges, starting with the altitude. But the Cowboys are down four players including three starters, decimated by injuries. Coach Allen Edwards has used 11 starting lineups, second-most in the country. They are 1-6 in conference play, the win against 0-7 San Jose State, and for the Bulldogs like most everyone else in the Mountain West winning and losing comes down to how it handles senior guard Justin James.
“He’s a really tough matchup,” Fresno State coach Justin Hutson said. “He’s big, athletic and skilled. We’re going to have to have a full team effort guarding. It’s not going to be just one guy, whoever is on him. We’re going to have to rotate different guys and whoever is not guarding him is going to have to be in good help position.”
With guard Jake Hendricks out with a knee injury, guard Hunter Maldonado out with a back injury, forward Austin Mueller out with a torn ACL and guard Tariq Johnson out with a medical issue, the Cowboys go as James does. The four sidelined players had accounted for 34 percent of the Cowboys’ scoring and 29 percent of their rebounds heading into conference play, and without them on the floor the 6-foot-7 James’ usage, which was high to begin with, has spiked.
James this season has taken 34.7 percent of the Cowboys’ shots, ranking 15th in the nation and first in the MW by a large margin. He has 335 shots in 20 games, 61 more than Nevada forward Caleb Martin in the same number of games.
That has not escaped notice, and the conference has reacted accordingly in making the going difficult for James at the offensive end.
The shots are down, the assists are down, the trips to the foul line are down. The shooting percentages from two and from three are way down especially when taking San Jose State, which is 10th in the conference in scoring defense and 11th and last in field goal percentage defense, out of the equation.
James per game in non-conference …
▪ FG-FGA, Pct: 6.9 of 17.3, .400
▪ 3FG-FGA, Pct: 1.1 of 4.2, .259
▪ FT-FTA, Pct: 7.5 of 9.9, .752
▪ Points: 22.4
▪ Assists: 4.4
James per game in conference …
▪ FG-FGA, Pct: 5.1 of 15.7, .327
▪ 3FG-FGA, Pct: 1.3 of 5.4, .327
▪ FT-FTA, Pct: 3.6 of 5.0, .714
▪ Points: 15.1
▪ Assists: 3.4
James per game in conference, minus San Jose State …
▪ FG-FGA, Pct: 4.8 of 16.3, .296
▪ 3FG-FGA, Pct: 1.0 of 5.2, .194
▪ FT-FTA, Pct: 3.7 of 5.8, .629
▪ Points: 14.3
▪ Assists: 3.2
Boise State has a lot to do with that. James in two games against the Broncos: 1 of 14 and seven points in a 69-55 loss at home and 2 of 17 and again just seven points in a 77-52 loss at Taco Bell Arena in Boise.
“They’ve been struggling this year with injuries and stuff, but they’ve always been in games at home.,” Hutson said of Wyoming. “We’re going to have to have a full team effort guarding James.”
Noah Blackwell game-time decision
Point guard Noah Blackwell, who has missed the Bulldogs’ past two games with a hamstring injury, could play against the Cowboys.
His status, Hutson said, will be a game-time decision.
The Bulldogs put together a solid second half at Boise State with Blackwell sidelined – the junior went out with 17:43 remaining with Fresno State down three and the Bulldogs hit 12 of 21 shots the rest of the way, taking advantage of turnovers and second-chance opportunities.
They haven’t been as efficient without Blackwell on the floor in a victory over San Diego State at the Save Mart Center and a loss at Colorado State. In those games the Bulldogs, scoring at better than 1.000 points per possession in their first four Mountain West games, were at 0.957 and 0.903 points per possession.
Grimes doubling up, and other notes
▪ Fresno State has won three of its past four games at the Arena-Auditorium, the loss 102-100 in a four-overtime game in 2017.
Deshon Taylor played 55 minutes in that game, scoring a game-high 32 points. He was just 6 of 23 including 3 of 10 at the 3-point line, but scored more than half of his points from the foul line hitting 17 of 18 free throws.
▪ Center Laz Rojas could get a few more minutes in this game, but consistency has been an elusive commodity. The 6-foot-11 third-year sophomore played a solid five minutes in the first half of the loss at Colorado State, scoring seven points with four rebounds and one blocked shot. In the second half he got six more minutes, but got just one rebound.
“He played a pretty good first half,” Hutson said. “He’s going to get some minutes sometimes so we have to keep him productive. We’re confident in him.”
▪ Fresno State forward Nate Grimes is one of three players averaging a double-double in conference play with 13.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Jalen McDaniels (San Diego State) is at 21.2 and 10.3 and Nico Carvacho (Colorado State) is at 18.0 and 12.6.
▪ Since allowing Nevada to grab 17 offensive rebounds and hold a 27-3 advantage in second-chance points in a 74-64 loss on Jan. 12 at the Save Mart Center, Fresno State’s next three opponents have a total of 17 offensive rebounds.
Boise State had six offensive rebounds and nine second-chance points, San Diego State had four and eight and Colorado State had seven and four.