Fresno State is not playing poorly, but with two basketball games remaining in the regular season the Bulldogs are far from a peak, which is one reason why coach Justin Hutson had another long chat with his team after a 71-60 victory over Wyoming on Wednesday at the Save Mart Center and why a weekend bye comes at an opportune time.
“It wasn’t any of us individually,” Hutson said. “It was us as a group. We need everybody to play good. If we’re going to go where we want to go, everybody has to step up …
“But the talk was a positive talk. It was, ‘You need to refocus because we need everybody if we’re going to win the way we want to.’“
Fresno State has split its past four basketball games, the wins coming against Wyoming and on Feb. 16 at New Mexico. Those opponents are 2-13 and 5-10 in Mountain West play, 10th and ninth in the standings, and New Mexico just lost at San Jose State, which had dropped 17 games in a row and was headed toward a winless conference season.
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Wyoming came in decimated by injuries and ranking toward the bottom of the conference in just about every defensive category, making the Bulldogs’ performance suspect. Against the Cowboys they hit just 24 of 65 shots (36.9 percent) and slogged through stretches where they were 0 of 8, 0 of 6, 1 of 7 and 0 of 8.
So aside from moving the number in the left-hand column, those wins don’t do much for Fresno State’s March credentials.
The key is coming out of this bye in much better shape for a game at San Diego State on Wednesday that likely will determine the No. 3 seed for the Mountain West tournament March 13-16 in Las Vegas – and who gets to avoid Nevada until a potential matchup in the championship game.
The Bulldogs hit the 20-win mark for a fourth season in a row and clinched a first-round bye at the Mountain West Tournament (March 13-16 in Las Vegas). Hutson became the fifth coach in school history to book 20 wins in his first season and first since Ray Lopes in 2002-03.
The Bulldogs got 30 points from Braxton Huggins, and Nate Grimes had his 11th double-double this season and 10th in conference play with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
Deshon Taylor had another solid game with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Hutson pointed to the Bulldogs’ lack of consistency and inexperience, and a couple of days off to recharge could be useful.
New Williams played in only four games last season as a sophomore, none after Feb. 17. Over the past four games, he has hit just 8 of 32 shots including 4 of 25 at the 3-point line. Noah Blackwell played a lot of basketball at Long Beach State, but sat out season under NCAA transfer rules. Over the past four games he’s just 7 of 29 and 5 of 17.
Aguir Agau is a freshman. Christian Gray is a JC transfer.
“Some of it needs to be away from us,” Hutson said. “They need to concentrate on their studies and not be around basketball. That’s the honest truth. When you have that break, they need a couple of days.
“Maybe on Saturday we can get together for a barbeque and not talk basketball and we can sit and laugh and talk about what’s going on, because this is a long year, especially for these guys with all of the responsibilities that they have. We have to refocus and we’ve got to play better as a group.”
Fresno State went into the Wyoming game with a foul differential of minus-40, twice that of any other team in the Mountain West, and was called for only 12 fouls.
That is the fewest against the Bulldogs in conference play.
They were averaging 19.4 fouls per game and the past three games at Nevada, against Air Force and at New Mexico it was 24.7.
Wyoming had 18 fouls and took only 13 foul shots and guard Justin James, who was leading the MW in free throw attempts in conference games, was 2 of 5 at the line.
Fresno State is the only team in the Mountain West that has had a bye in the first round of the conference tournament the past five seasons.
The Bulldogs at worst will be a No. 4 seed, with UNLV losing Wednesday at Nevada.
Hutson put more stock in the bye than in winning 20 games in his first season.
“That is important,” he said.”You don’t want to try to win four games in four days, you want to win three in three. It is nice to have the bye. We need it and we have earned it.”
San Diego State, which is a half-game behind the Bulldogs in fourth place in the conference standings, plays San Jose State on Saturday so the Aztecs and Bulldogs should be tied for third at 11-5 when they play March 6 Viejas Arena.
The Bulldogs have won the past two and two of the past three games at San Diego State, the loss 73-67 in overtime in 2016.
▪ The eight 3-pointers by Huggins against Wyoming were as many as or more than three of the other five teams that Mountain West teams that played on Wednesday. Colorado State was 6 of 15, Boise State was 5 of 27 and the Cowboys were 8 of 24.
▪ Taylor had five assists against the Cowboys and now has five or more in four consecutive games, 23 total. He has scored or assisted on 53 of the Bulldogs’ past 95 baskets.
▪ Fresno State had 15 assists in the game, its most since it had 16 in a Jan. 5 victory over Colorado State.