Fresno State opened the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball race with a good road win at UNLV, a bad home loss to New Mexico and last game played with urgency and hit a level it had not yet reached this season in ripping Nevada.
But that grind of playing through a conference season is only part of it for Julien Lewis, a Bulldogs senior guard. There are the shootarounds and walkthroughs and film sessions, practices, and long bus rides like the one returning from that opening win – trekking through the desert at 2, 3 and 4 a.m.
All of it, together, that’s the good stuff – all senses heightened with so much at stake.
“This is the best part about college basketball – conference,” said Lewis, who has been through it in the Big 12 Conference when at Texas and now in the Mountain West with the Bulldogs.
“You play most of the same teams twice. You may play a couple only once. But two teams, say you lose one, you’re thinking, ‘I get to go back and play them one more time,’ so then you know when you come in, the team that lost that game is going to come in with a lot of grit; and the team that won, they’re thinking, ‘We can’t let them beat us.’ And that makes it even more fun. I love it.”
Over the past month Lewis has played some of his best basketball, hitting 23 of 40 shots (57.5 percent) with 13 rebounds, 12 steals and 11 assists in six games.
He also gave it up.
For three days in November, Lewis was done. He told coach Rodney Terry, told his teammates.
The Bulldogs had played at Rice, close to his hometown of Galveston, Texas, where he had averaged 25.8 points a game as a senior in leading LaMarque High to the Class 4A championship game and was a three-time district Player of the Year. When the Bulldogs came home, Lewis had lost something.
“To be honest, I quit the team,” he said. “I was going through some issues and I felt like I was going to bring a lack of energy to this team. I didn’t want to do that.”
It wasn’t about role or playing time. Lewis offered a shrug, because there is no easy answer.
“I think there’s an incredible amount of pressure there,” said Jerry Wainwright, the Bulldogs’ lead assistant. “We obviously have transfers, understand that. But his journey has been kind of a full range. He obviously has sublimated his personal for others. ... If you went around the team and asked every guy, ‘Who do you think is the best guy? Who is the guy who is always there for you?’ I bet he’d be close to 100 percent.
“But the pressure of the community, you go back to where you scored 40 a night in high school and you played at Texas … there were just so many voices and not all those voices care about him. But sometimes you have to take a step back and say, ‘I believe I’m doing the right thing. This is the right thing for me right now.’ He was able to take a step away from it.”
We all talked to him every day, just weighed out his options with him, seeing what was best for him and what he wanted to do. Turned out the best thing for him was being with us on the court.
Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris on helping persuade fellow senior guard Julien Lewis to return to the team after a one-game absence
Terry said Lewis just needed to hit the reset button and did, turning to his teammates and coaches while sitting out a victory over Delaware State.
“We all talked to him every day, just weighed out his options with him, seeing what was best for him and what he wanted to do,” Marvelle Harris said. “It was just being there for him, more than as a teammate, as a friend or a bother. Turned out the best thing for him was being with us on the court.”
That, really, was it.
“I was not engaged in ball anymore. That was my fault personally,” Lewis said. “But I apologized to them. I told them how I feel about those guys and they told me how they feel about me. Really, it’s not about how they felt about me; it’s more about how I feel about those guys. I love those guys and I love playing with them. That’s what it’s all about.
“I did it for these guys. Not for myself, for these guys. I’m really happy with the way it worked out, the whole situation. They pulled me back in.”
And over the past month Lewis has played some of his best basketball, hitting 23 of 40 shots over the past six games (57.5 percent) with 13 rebounds, 12 steals and 11 assists.
This is what I want to do. I didn’t come this far in college to give up.
Lewis, who along with the rest of the Bulldogs face Boise State on Saturday in the Mountain West rivals’ lone matchup of the regular season
“I like what ‘Juice’ has done. I think he has played with great pace of play on offense, and he has played really hard on defense,” Terry said. “I think he has tried really hard to lock in on the scouting report and do a good job on the perimeter players when he’s in there.
“He has done a really good job. He has let everything come to him when he’s in the game. He doesn’t force it. He has been very unselfish in everything that he’s doing, offensively and defensively.”
Lewis could be a key piece Saturday when the Bulldogs play at Boise State, which has the highest winning percentage of any team in the Mountain West and has won 16 consecutive games on its home floor, the past eight this season. It is a one-time conference matchup – the Broncos do not make a return trip to Fresno State – adding to the urgency to come away with a victory.
“This is something I couldn’t give up,” Lewis said. “This is what I want to do. I didn’t come this far in college to give up. I know for sure we can win a Mountain West championship this year. I know for sure. This group of guys can win a Mountain West championship, but it takes all of us to stay focused and positive through it. Something goes bad, just think of something positive and I think we’ll go far. We work hard. We compete … this is the best part about college basketball.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
AT BOISE STATE
- Saturday: 3 p.m. at Taco Bell Arena
- Records: Bulldogs 11-5, 2-1 Mountain West; Broncos 11-4, 2-0
- Webcast/radio: Mountain West Network (themwc.com)/KFIG (AM 940)
- Of note: Boise State, coming off Tuesday victory at Utah State, has won eight in a row. Last season, the Broncos had a season-best eight-game winning streak before the Bulldogs beat them 70-64 at Save Mart Center on Feb. 14, 2015.