Fresno State’s offense falters against Air Force
Fresno State lost to Air Force 64-61 Wednesday night at the Save Mart Center, which qualifies as a bad loss on so many levels.
▪ The Bulldogs were tied for second in the Mountain West men’s basketball standings, winners of five of their past six games. The Falcons were tied for seventh in the conference, losers of four of five.
▪ Air Force over the past four-plus seasons had won just four MW road games, three of them against San Jose State teams that are a combined 11-72 including 0-12 this season.
▪ The Bulldogs had 11 turnovers in the first half and put the ball through the basket only 10 times, making six field goals and four free throws.
▪ They hit 35.1 percent of their shots, their worst in Mountain West play. And, they had to hit seven of their last 11 shots just to get there.
▪ Included in that woeful shooting: they were 6 of 17 on layups, 35.3 percent.
▪ Not surprisingly, they had a season-low nine assists.
▪ They also had 16 points in the paint, the fewest against Air Force in conference play; the Falcons had allowed as many as 52 against Colorado State and 30 or more seven times.
What made it worse was that No. 6 Nevada lost at San Diego State, which means the Bulldogs go to Reno on Saturday to play a peeved Wolf Pack and the Aztecs at 9-4 are now just a half-game behind the Bulldogs in the conference standings.
Utah State beat New Mexico to break a second-place tie with Fresno State, so the Bulldogs are looking more like a No. 4 or even No. 5 seed next month at the Mountain West Tournament than a No. 2 seed.
UNLV, in fifth place at 9-5, has won three games in a row, albeit against Air Force, at San Jose State and at Wyoming.
The dynamic changed on the Bulldogs that fast, but coach Justin Hutson nailed it afterward, after a lengthy meeting with his team.
“The definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” he said. “Our very first scrimmage, we had 13 turnovers at University of San Diego and we were down 20 and then we didn’t turn the ball over and we moved it, we played easy, so it seems like we’d learn from that.
“It was multiple guys and we subbed in and we subbed out. We started making the extra pass as we played, our pressure got up higher. Our intensity was higher in the full court, which I like. But it wasn’t our defense that killed us tonight, it was our offense.”
In that first half Fresno State jacked up threes (15 of their first 20 shots), didn’t move the basketball, didn’t drive it, didn’t finish some easy chances in the paint.
Fresno State is not a big team, and it tends to play that way at times. It played that way against the Falcons, who in conference play were 10th in rebounding margin (minus-2.5), 10th in blocked shots (1.4 pg) and 10th in field goal percentage defense (46.8).
Air Force, with a lack of size or a credible shot-blocking presence, had allowed opponents to hit 54.3 percent of its 2-point shots, again ranking 10th in the conference and 308th in the nation.
That makes the Bulldogs’ inability to finish at the rim and in the paint even more glaring.
That 20 of 57 breaks down like this …
▪ 2-point shots: 8 of 26, 30.8 percent
▪ 3-point shots: 12 of 31, 38.7 percent
Without an adjustment on Saturday at Nevada, the Bulldogs will be in deep against a Wolf Pack team that is bigger, stronger, more physical and leading the Mountain West in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.
“It will be a different game,” Hutson said. “Nevada is big and strong and they’ll switch, so they’ll make you play one-on-one. Air Force didn’t make us play one on one tonight, we played one on one on our own. Nevada will switch every screen and make you play one-on-one in the post ... so now we’ll see if we can still get in the paint and make extra passes.
“We’re going to need some one-on-one plays when they switch every screen one through five. But tonight I was disappointed because Air Force did not make us play one-on-one. We did that on our own.”
Closer look at standings
The loss dropped Fresno State into solo third in the Mountain West, one game behind Utah State and ahead of San Diego State and UNLV.
The Bulldogs will clinch a first-round bye at the conference tournament with one more win, but their seeding is much fuzzier after the loss to Air Force.
What the contenders have left …
Utah State: at Boise State (6-7), San Diego State (9-4), Nevada (11-2), at Colorado State (5-8)
Fresno State: at Nevada (11-2), Wyoming (2-11), at San Diego State (9-4), San Jose State (0-13)
San Diego State: at UNLV (9-5), at Utah State (11-3), San Jose State (0-13), Fresno State (10-4), at Nevada (11-2)
UNLV: San Diego State (9-4), at Nevada (11-2), Boise State (6-7), at Colorado State (5-8)
▪ Fresno State did not score a point for a stretch of 9:32 in the first half, going 0 of 9 and turning over the ball five times. It was the Bulldogs’ longest drought since going scoreless for the first 9:51 of a 76-39 loss at Utah State in 2010.
▪ The Bulldogs scored their 19th and 20th points in the first half with 37 seconds remaining on a pair of free throws by Deshon Taylor. The last time Fresno State was held under 20 points in a half was March 7, 2015, a 71-52 loss at Boise State when the Bulldogs scored 19 in the first half.
▪ Taylor went 8 of 8 at the foul line and is now at 83.1 percent for his Fresno State career (496 of 597), second on the Bulldogs’ all-time list. He trails only Wil Hooker, who hit 83.6 percent (327 of 391) from 1989-92.
▪ Caleb Morris, who hit 5 of 10 shots all from the 3-point line and led Air Force with 17 points, went into the game averaging just 5.9 points per game.
Morris had scored 17 points total over the Falcons’ past three games and he was just 4 of 14 from the 3-point line over the past five games.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada