Fresno State Basketball

Bulldogs open practice well behind the Mountain West Conference, but well ahead of the game

The Fresno State Bulldogs will go through their first official men’s basketball practice for the 2019-20 season on Wednesday, digging in once again with an operating budget that has been cut significantly the past few years and is one of the smallest in the Mountain West Conference.

A potential starter, Vante Hendrix, is at New Mexico.

Another potential starter, Daryl Edwards, is at Texas-El Paso.

Hendrix, a mid-year transfer from Utah, made a commitment to Fresno State, but was not allowed to enroll after missing a filing deadline even though he was well within NCAA guidelines, according to sources close to his recruitment.

Edwards, a former star at Fresno High, was set to return home as a graduate transfer from LSU when an eligibility issue popped up. The athletics department moved on, and once cleared and eligible again Edwards found a home with former Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry.

In a conference where most programs have a dedicated practice facility with all the trimmings, Fresno State is in the Save Mart Center when available. When it is not, it’s the North Gym, where a renovation project started in February 2017 finally is nearing completion.

The Bulldogs will have a locker room – when practicing there in the past, players coming from class had to change in a restroom or in the gym.

A post-practice shower? Forget it.

To lift weights or get treatment, players had to trek across Cedar Avenue to facilities located in the student-athlete village.

The dearth of support for the program, that has not changed.

Nov. 5 opener at Oregon

Coach Justin Hutson, in year two, has 30 practices before a Nov. 5 opener at Oregon to meld eight newcomers and a solid core of returning players.

The Bulldogs have five 20-win seasons out of the past six, including a 23-9 record in Hutson’s first season, the best winning percentage in the nation for a first-year coach. He won the the 2018-19 Joe B. Hall national coach of the year award.

Fresno State is the only Mountain West team with 10 or more conference wins and to earn a first-round bye at the conference tournament in each of the past five seasons.

But the success on the floor far outpaces what Fresno State has put into it, which has impacts throughout the program.

Fresno State’s Aguir Agau drives to the basket and Tennessee-Martin Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018 at the Save Mart Center. Agau hit 6 of 7 shots and scored a career-high 13 points in the Bulldogs’ 93-53 victory. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

A revolving door of academic support personnel played into an Academic Progress Rate score of 857 in 2015-16, leaving the program perilously close to a postseason ban and Hutson no wiggle room in putting together a roster.

A four-year score of 930 is required by the NCAA to participate in the postseason – the Bulldogs in 2017-18 were at 932, and Hutson has to carry that low 2015-16 score that he inherited in the multi-year equation for one more year.

It’s uphill, all the way, and on a tight budget – in 2014-15 Fresno State spent $558,500, on basketball, but the budgets have been shrinking to less than $400,000 a year.

But, it’s also basketball season.

“I don’t want to talk about all of that,” Hutson said. “This time of year, it’s all about the guys.”

That group does not include Deshon Taylor, Braxton Huggins or Sam Bittner, seniors last season who were first-team all-conference, second-team all-conference and one of the most clever players in the conference.

Fresno State guard Noah Blackwell, right, put up a shot from the 3-point line in front of Boise State’s Marcus Dickinson in the first half of the Bulldogs’ 65-63 victory over the Broncos Wednesday night, Feb. 13, 2019 in Fresno. Blackwell scored 10 points and had a big blocked shots in the final seconds to help secure the victory. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

First look at roster

Guards Noah Blackwell and New Williams return. Nate Grimes, one of two players in the Mountain West to average a double-double in conference play with 11.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, is back.

Aguir Agau, Laz Rojas and Christian Gray, all are back.

Assane Diouf, the 7-foot-2 center who was redshirted last season, adds a dimension the Bulldogs have not had in years.

Forward Chris Seeley, a local product from Central High and a Utah transfer, is eligible after sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules.

Guard Jordan Campbell, a mid-year transfer from Oregon State, will be eligible following the fall semester.

Hutson and his staff also signed a stellar freshman class – guards Jarred Hyder, Anthony Holland and Niven Hart and 6-10 forward Orlando Robinson.

They added JC transfer guards Mustafa Lawrence, C.J. Hyder and Alec Hickman.

There will be a lot of 5 on 5 in practice, as Hutson and his staff sort through what at this point are myriad combinations that they can put on the floor.

Not much time to meld

But Hutson said the Bulldogs can extend a winning run, though with the Mountain West moving up the dates of its conference tournament there will be challenges. The Bulldogs open conference play Dec. 4 against UNLV after having played what at this point is only four non-conference games – Fresno State has yet to release a full schedule.

“I like our talent,” Hutson said. “I think we can be deep, if we stay injury-free. I think we can really play good defense. It’s exciting. If you look at it the other way, sometimes you can get nervous with the lack of experience, but that’s why we’re here.

“We’re going to have to play a little more in practice this year so guys can figure it out and have more game atmosphere in practice. Last year, we were afraid of injuries a little bit because we didn’t have the depth. We did play a lot, but we’ll play more this year 5 on 5 so guys can have more game-time atmosphere.”

Fresno State obviously lost its scoring punch – Huggins averaged 18.5 points per game and Taylor 17.9, 43.9% of the Bulldogs’ points.

Blackwell, Grimes, Williams, all will need to take on more – Blackwell played 29.4 minutes per game, averaging 8.5 points and 3.6 assists per game, while Grimes played 25.6 minutes per game and Williams 25.8.

“We loved our team last year – we had 23 wins,” Hutson said. “Now, it’s almost like starting over. You have a lot of depth, but they’re new. They’re going to have to learn what the Mountain West is about. Deshon and Sam and Braxton knew what playing college basketball was about and they set the tone that way.

“Now we need Noah and New and Nate to set the tone. But, also, we need the young guys to emerge. There’s no rite of passage where just because you were here you’re going to play all the minutes and you’re going to start. We need to get an atmosphere where the young guys learn and emerge at the same time.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada