Nine games in, Fresno State is 6-3 and, as with most teams, the pieces haven’t yet become a picture. There is plenty to work on in a run of four consecutive home games that starts on Saturday against Pacific and leads into Mountain West Conference play.
Transition defense. Ball screen defense. Defending the dribble. In a loss at No. 13 Arizona Wednesday, these shortfalls touched off a chain reaction that led to some easy baskets by the Wildcats. The Bulldogs had difficulty staying in front of the ball, and having to help, were slow to rotate.
They have not shot the basketball particularly well yet, and rank last in the conference in hitting 42.2 percent of their shots. Their pace of play has been inconsistent. The execution in the last four minutes, in particular, has cost them in losses at Oregon and at Arizona. That 6-3 could be 7-2 or 8-1. But in a two-possession game against the Ducks with 1:51 to go,they faltered, made only one basket the rest of the way; in a one-possession game with 2:57 remaining against the Wildcats, they didn’t make another basket.
“We’re going to be in games all year, our league is going to be that way, where games are going to be in the balance the whole time,” coach Rodney Terry said. “You just have to stay with what you’re doing, you can’t flinch and you have to keep playing, keep competing.
“We’re still learning how to win and to close out games, like a lot of teams. But it’s a process. You wish it could happen overnight, but you have to be in those situations and then you have to execute.”
Pacific could provide an answer whether the Bulldogs have that piece locked in, if they are able to follow through with a strong first half against the Wildcats and maintain that level.
“What we’re trying to do is pick up from the start that we had in Arizona,” point guard Cezar Guerrero said. “Even though we kind of let that slip away from us, we had a great start to that game and went blow to blow with them. The outcome isn’t what we wanted, but we learned from our loss. I feel it’s playing downhill and getting to the basket and like Coach Terry always expresses, owning the Mountain West, the logo in the paint, and having control over that.
“That’s a big key. Once you take the ball inside, drive it to the paint or give it to the big man to get them going, it opens up the perimeter for us and opens up driving lanes, opens up wide-open looks. That’s what happened at Arizona and we took advantage of it.”
In that first half against the Wildcats, Fresno State hit 57.6 percent of its shots, which is its high mark in any first half this season and its second best in any half. The Bulldogs hit 65 percent of their shots in the second half in a victory at Rice. They moved the ball, got into the lane for easy baskets or found open shooters on the perimeter. It’s what they want it to look like, every game. And it could be an answer to improving that field goal percentage and late-game execution.
Pacific is 1-6, but will pose challenges. Three of those losses have come by three points or fewer including one in overtime and two others have come by eight points or less. The Tigers also have won the past two meetings with the Bulldogs, winning 71-68 last season and 86-77 in 2013-’14, both of those games at the Alex G. Spanos Center.
But to some degree, it comes down to the Bulldogs and working downhill.
“I think everybody this time of year is trying to put it together and get better defensively and offensively,” Terry said. “We know there are areas we need to continue to get better. I thought our pace of play on offense got better in the last ball game and we have to continue to try to get better with that every game.
“This time of year, you’re not going to be perfect. I wish we were. We have a lot of work to do and have a lot of things to get better at.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
MEN’S BASKETBALL: FRESNO STATE VS. PACIFIC
- Saturday: 4 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 6-3, Tigers 1-6
- Online TV: Mountain West Network
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Series: Pacific leads 81-74 overall
- Last meeting: Pacific 71, Fresno State 68 on Dec. 20, 2014, in Stockton
- Of note: The Bulldogs women’s team opens the doubleheader at 2 p.m. at Save Mart Center against San Diego. Fans are encouraged to wear red for the “Red Out” as both the men’s and women’s teams will wear red for the only time at home this season.