With one game remaining before the Mountain West Conference Tournament, Fresno State is both a curiosity and very intriguing going forward.
The Bulldogs have climbed in the standings behind senior guard Marvelle Harris, a top candidate to be conference Player of the Year.
But they also have been without leading rebounder Torren Jones for nine games with an ongoing medical issue, starter Paul Watson missed three games with a calf injury and has logged a total of 11 minutes in the past three, and still they are playing nine-deep and getting significant contributions fitting all of those pieces together.
Cullen Russo and Karachi Edo have expanded their games with Jones and Watson ailing. Freshman Sam Bittner, who had played a total of 47 minutes before making his first career start three weeks ago, has provided productive minutes. So, too, has Terrell Carter, rebounding the ball and blocking shots while picking up more fouls than points in the past four games.
Cezar Guerrero and Lionel Ellison have settled into roles. Julien Lewis has hit more three-pointers in the past two games than he had in the first 28. Jahmel Taylor, the Washington transfer who became eligible after the fall semester, has hit threes at a 51.9 percent clip in conference play.
“We said a couple of weeks ago that we’re just getting started,” coach Rodney Terry said. “I think we’ve gotten into a pretty good rhythm and routine with the way we’re doing things, just trying to be everyday guys; come in and compete every day in practice and try to have carryover and bring that to the games.
“It’s a process. We’re in March right now and we wanted to be playing our best basketball at the end of February and into March, and we’re doing that. I think guys are playing for each other and they’re trusting each other and I think they’re having fun out there. The buy-in part, they’ve bought in. Like I’ve said before, we’re a team.”
There are a lot of moving pieces in there and an attraction in how far they can go.
But the next step ahead puts them in front of Utah State at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, where the Aggies are 10-5 overall and 4-4 in conference play.
Win, and Fresno State will lock up the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament and on Thursday in Las Vegas will play the winner of a matchup between the seventh and 10th seeds.
Lose, and the Bulldogs could fall to No. 3, depending on what Boise State does at San Jose State in its regular-season finale.
The Bulldogs, Lewis said, see it as another chance to build on a stretch in which they have won 7 of 8 and are looking no further.
“We’re on a good run, coming off a good road win at New Mexico, coming off another good home win against Colorado State and we want to keep it moving,” he said.
“We don’t ever want to look ahead. Right now, we’re focused on Utah State. That’s my main concern right now, and my mind is on doing my job at a high level and the rest of the guys doing their jobs at a high level. I feel like we’re doing it right now, competing hard at both ends of the floor, and it’s paying off for us.”
The Bulldogs beat Utah State 75-68 on Feb. 20 at Save Mart Center, the second of five consecutive wins. The keys then against a team that is third in the conference in field-goal percentage (45.0) and second beyond the three-point line (36.4) still hold: getting back in transition and setting the defense, shooter defense, blocking out and rebounding.
The Aggies are led by Chris Smith and Jalen Moore, who are second and sixth, respectively, in the conference in shooting and eighth and ninth in scoring.
“On their home court, we can’t get in a game of trading baskets with them,” Terry said. “The last game, we got to trading baskets. We have to sit down and try to get some stops. The game was a close game, it was in the balance the whole time. We weren’t putting consecutive stops together. They’re hard to guard.”
Fresno State, in its run toward a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, has been taking its scouting reports to the court. That has been a constant along with Harris, who in the past eight games is averaging 25.5 points, 5.6 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.9 steals per game.
“It’s a direct correlation to the way they’re practicing,” Terry said. “Guys are coming in and they’re very business-like about practice. We don’t have a lot of wasted time, where we have to stay on certain stuff. That’s a good sign at this time of year. As your team is improving your team comes to work and they punch the clock in practice and know what we’ve got to get done to get better.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT UTAH STATE
- Saturday: 6 p.m. at Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan
- Records: Bulldogs 21-9, 12-5 Mountain West; Aggies 15-13, 7-10
- Webcast/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940)