On Selection Sunday, as the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled matchup by matchup, region by region – and even beforehand, considering the thing was leaked before it was announced – a few coaching staffs undoubtedly were scrambling, looking for information and video on their opponents, as much as could be had and the more the better.
Fresno State took a slightly different tack on Utah, its Midwest Regional opponent in the first round Thursday. The No. 14-seeded Bulldogs played Utes teams coached by Larry Krystkowiak in 2011-12 and 2013-14, winning the first one 82-52 at Save Mart Center and losing the second 90-77 in Salt Lake City. So there is some familiarity. But more than that, according to Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry and associate head coach Jerry Wainwright, there is a danger of overloading too much information at this time of year.
“You want to give the guys a snapshot. It’s not, ‘This is my trip to Yellowstone,’ ” said Wainwright, who took North Carolina-Wilmington to the NCAA Tournament in 1999-2000 and 2001-02 and had Richmond dancing in 2003-04. “You give them a few snapshots and specific accountability objectives: ‘This is what we’re doing.’ … Keep their minds uncluttered.”
Terry and his assistants are preparing as they have all season, with Wainwright handling the defensive scout and plan, Terry and Kenton Paulino taking the offense, and Byron Jones working on special situations.
The staff watched full games and clips of specific situations, then presented the information to the players in film sessions and a scouting report.
“You keep it short for them,” said Terry, who is coaching in the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time but first as head coach. “We have to know all the stuff. The guys, they don’t need to know all the stuff. They need to know what they need to know whether it’s personnel, whether it’s set plays, whether it’s tendencies. Those are the things they need to know”
Bottom line: The Bulldogs are going to have to make plays to win – both in and out of what they have in the scouting report and game plan.
They did that several times in the championship game of the Mountain West tournament, taking out a San Diego State team that was longer and more athletic but didn’t execute down the stretch.
“Players have to make plays,” Wainwright said. “(Julien Lewis’) jump shot (with 1:36 to go that gave the Bulldogs the lead for good), that was not out of our offensive package. That was just a kid being aggressive. What was out of our offensive package is the coaches have really worked hard on his shot and he was confident enough to take it. Guys have to make plays. Marvelle (Harris’) fall-down put-back off the offensive rebound, that’s why he was player of the year. God gave him some gifts; you let them go use them.
“The fine line here is you don’t try to do too much. Don’t be paranoid in your preparation. You’re going to have to try to identify specific strength and weaknesses, obviously. What are the things that we need to do, that we’re going to have to definitely stop? Is there something we haven’t seen that we need to address? Ultimately, you try to tweak a few things but keep the kids relaxed and try to eliminate one or two things out of what Utah does and maybe change one or two things that we do. With all the technology, you can absolute overdo the scout. Our game plans down the stretch have been more fundamental in nature and what we’ve really tried to emphasize is what adjustments off those fundamentals we can make once the game gets started.”
Watson factor – The Bulldogs’ Paul Watson played 26 minutes in the MW championship, hitting 3 of 4 shots in scoring eight points with five rebounds and one steal. The 26 minutes – and the production – are significant with the Bulldogs going against a large Utah front line led by 7-foot center Jakob Poeltl.
The Fresno State junior is expected to add depth to the front line. The Bulldogs have been thin in that area with Torren Jones out due to an ongoing medical issue and Watson missing three games due to a calf injury and playing only 29 total minutes in five games before the victory over the Aztecs.
“He’s about 95 percent, almost at 100 and being healthy now, and I think he has got past the mental part of that as well,” Terry said of Watson. “We’ve been able to get him more involved and absolutely, we’ll need Paul Watson to come in and play at the level he did the other day. The four, that’s where we’re short right now, so opportunity is there.”
Climbing the Mountain West – Fresno State is the only Mountain West team to get into the NCAA Tournament, the first time since 2001 the conference has had only one team dancing. Also, the No. 14 seed assigned to the Bulldogs is the lowest for the tournament champion in its history.
But the NCAA Tournament selection committee is not alone in its assessment of the conference right now. KenPom gives the Bulldogs a 0.1 chance of advancing through the Midwest Regional – and obviously that would take some monumental upsets. But to the point: KenPom rates Arkansas-Little Rock from the Sun Belt Conference (0.8) and Iona from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (0.3) higher than Fresno State.
Et cetera – The Utes got spanked in their last game, losing to Oregon 88-57 in the Pacific-12 Conference tournament championship, and that might not play well for Fresno State. Utah didn’t beat Oregon during the regular season, but the Utes did go go on extended winning streaks right after those losses. They won five in a row following a 77-59 loss Jan.14 at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City and they won nine in a row after a 76-66 loss to the Ducks Feb. 7 at Matthew Knight Arena.
▪ Utah is 5-2 on neutral floors this season. The Utes beat Texas Tech and Temple and losit to Miami at Coliseo Roberto Clemente at the Puerto Rico Tipoff in November, defeated then-No. 7 Duke 77-75 in overtime at Madison Square Garden in December and beat USC and No. 24 Cal before losing to Oregon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena at the Pac-12 tournament. Fresno State is 2-0, the victories coming against Colorado State and San Diego State in the MW tournament at Thomas & Mack Center. The Bulldogs also beat UNLV in the tournament on the Rebels’ home floor.
▪ The Bulldogs on Monday were an 8.5-point underdog to the Utes, and the task ahead is not impossible. There have been 20 No. 14 seeds to knock off a No. 3, the most recent last season when Georgia State knocked out Baylor 57-56 and Alabama-Birmingham beat Iowa State 60-59, and at least one upset in each of the past three seasons. Baylor was a 9.5-point favorite over Georgia State and Iowa State was a 14-point favorite over Alabama-Birmingham.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Big Dance Fever
MIDWEST REGIONAL: NO. 14 FRESNO STATE VS. NO. 3 UTAH
- Thursday: 4:27 p.m. at the Pepsi Center in Denver
- Records: Bulldogs 25-9, Utes 26-8
- TV: TRU TV (DirecTV Ch. 246, Dish 242, Comcast 50/748, AT&T U-Verse 164)
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940)