When the Fresno State men’s basketball team clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament over the weekend, Greg Jurica called for a substitute teacher. His sixth-grade class at Willow Glen Elementary School in Visalia would need one to close out the week without him.
Instead, he will be at the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver to watch his beloved Bulldogs take on Utah in a first-round NCAA Tournament game Thursday. It is the first time Fresno State has participated in March Madness since 2001.
“My wife and I always talked about if they ever made it, we’d have to go,” Jurica said. He met his wife, Ashley, when they were both students at Fresno State. They both graduated in 2009 and this year held season tickets for basketball and football.
“We went to almost every home game this year and the games in Reno and Cal Poly,” he said. “My wife likes sports. We don’t have kids yet, and this gives us something to do.”
The Juricas will fly out of Fresno on Thursday morning and will stay with Greg’s relatives in a Denver suburb. They’re prepared to stay until Sunday if the Bulldogs win their opening game against favored Utah and get to play in the next round Saturday. Greg didn’t rule out following the Bulldogs next week if the team advances to the Midwest Regional in Chicago – his elementary school is on spring break.
Greg moved to Fresno from Southern California to attend the university. He became aware of Fresno State through its athletic teams – the football team was just coming off the David Carr era. David Carr was the top-notch quarterback who was a No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, and he is the older brother of Derek Carr, who also played quarterback at Fresno State and is now quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
Boost for school pride
Fresno State Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Lamas said it’s common for universities to see a spike in enrollment and donations after strong athletic seasons. He hopes the success of both basketball teams – the women’s team reached the postseason for the ninth consecutive year – will bear fruit in the coming months.
“People like to be associated with a winner,” Lamas said.
Jurica, himself a former basketball player, befriended a few Fresno State team members during his time at the university, which made his attachment to the Bulldogs fun and more personal.
“They haven’t ever made it since I’ve been in the Valley,” he said of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. “Luckily, flying to Denver is pretty convenient.”
The ’Dogs reached the tournament this year by defeating San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference tournament final Saturday. The women’s team was a layup away from also winning the conference tournament but wound up losing to Colorado State.
Still, 2016 marks the first year both basketball teams are in either the NCAA or the National Invitation Tournament in the same season.
Fresno State Athletics Department spokesman Jason Clay said that 350 tickets were made available to Fresno State for the men’s game Thursday. Most went to boosters and season-ticket holders such as Jurica, who had the first crack at them.
Clay said some boosters traveled on the team’s chartered flight, and others are traveling on a privately chartered flight.
Tickets for the women’s Friday home game against Santa Clara went on sale at noon Tuesday.
“It’s been a really exciting year for our sports teams,” Clay said. “Baseball and softball also had the best starts in Mountain West history.”
Showing their spirit
Because of previous commitments, Fresno State President Joseph Castro will not make the trip to Denver for the first round but could make the trip if the Bulldogs advance, Clay said.
However, a large student contingent will be in Denver, as the marching band and spirit squad will travel with the team.
In Fresno, stores and restaurants near the campus are gearing up for a postseason push. Dog House Grill expects a full house Thursday, and the bar will also serve green beer for St. Patrick’s Day. The Bulldog Shop and Bulldog Fan Zone received special conference championship hats and shirts Tuesday afternoon. The blue T-shirt arrived at the Bulldog Shop, and the red was delivered to the Fan Zone.
Fresno State student Ian Whitehead bought a championship shirt at the Bulldog Shop for his grandfather, a lifelong Bulldogs basketball fan.
“He’s battling cancer right now, but he watches all of their games,” Whitehead said. “I wanted to come down and get him one.”
For Jurica, the conference championship and NCAA berth represent an opportunity too good to pass up.
“I hope they’re in (the tournament) every year,” he said, “but we really don’t know when they’ll be in again.”
The Fresno State men’s basketball team is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
Midwest Region: No. 3 Utah vs. No. 14 Fresno State
Vitals: 4:27 p.m. Thursday at Pepsi Center in Denver
TV: Game carried on truTV; check your carrier for channel