Cullen Russo might be off limits to the media these days, but the other night he and I still managed to share a moment.
My press-row seat at Save Mart Center, near the tunnel closest to the home bench, happens to be right next to the exercise bike Fresno State basketball players use to warm up before entering games.
So it happened Wednesday night, early in the second half of the Bulldogs’ much-needed 77-59 battering of San Jose State, that Russo left the bench and started pedaling alongside me.
Just before being subbed in, Russo glanced over and we made quick eye contact. With a slight dip of his chin, he gave me a head nod. It felt sincere.
Neither of us said anything, but in that instant I could tell how much being back in a Bulldogs uniform meant to the senior forward.
What happens now is completely up to him.
7 games Cullen Russo has missed this season due to multiple suspensions
During his two-year Fresno State career, Russo has been something of a riddle wrapped inside an enigma – to steal material from Winston Churchill.
At 6-foot-9, 235 pounds and blessed with a bevy of skills, the Bloomington, Minn., native should be one of the top players in the Mountain West Conference. After his college eligibility expires, he should be able to play basketball for a living. If not in the NBA, then overseas.
Far too often, though, the actuality has fallen short. Russo has missed seven games this season for reasons behavioral and academic. The latest was a four-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Team rules, in this case, being ill-conceived tweets he sent out following a Jan. 28 loss at Utah State.
The tweets were quickly deleted, but not before they drew the attention of the coaching staff.
The tweets were quickly deleted, but not before they drew the attention of coach Rodney Terry.
“That was a problem. That was disturbing,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said when he and I spoke Wednesday night. “We didn’t like that one bit. But then again you learn from your actions.
“In society right now, social media is something you have to deal with. It’s something we talk about as a program on a regular basis. If you have an issue, you bring it up through the right protocol and guys have to learn that.”
This isn’t the first time Russo’s social media habits have landed him in hot water. Last summer, he and a few teammates used Twitter to complain about money and scholarship checks.
“We all have frustrations about things, but it’s not the platform or the place to do it,” Terry said. “He’s learned from it, and I think he’ll be better.”
He’s probably more focused than he’s been at any point of the season right now. He’s going to try and finish it out the right way.
Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry, on Cullen Russo
It’s a lesson Russo apparently needed to learn twice.
Still, a four-game suspension for dumb tweets that hardly anyone saw is ample punishment.
Terry’s decision to reinstate Russo was appropriate, and not just because his team needed a lift when Karachi Edo sprained his right ankle.
But now that Russo is back, his mere presence won’t be enough. For the Bulldogs to reverse their recent momentum loss and earn a crucial first-round bye in next month’s conference tournament, he needs to be present in mind, body and spirit.
Far too often with Russo, that hasn’t been the case. On the court, he is prone to bouts of frustration. Turnovers or missed shots are often followed by silly fouls. When his first jump shot goes in, you can practically see Russo’s confidence rise. When it misses, he sulks.
With New Mexico in town Saturday afternoon and two tough road games on tap next week, Fresno State needs Russo at his very best.
“It’s great to have him back with us,” said senior captain Paul Watson, who kept in contact with his teammate during his latest suspension. “He’s going to do a lot of big things for us down the stretch.”
He’s our brother. That’s how we look at it. He’s not our teammate, he’s our brother.
senior forward Paul Watson, on Cullen Russo
Russo showed what he can do in 19 minutes off the bench Wednesday night. Yes, he only scored two points. Just don’t overlook the seven rebounds and clingy defense that helped limit high-scoring Spartans forward Brandon Clarke to four points on 2-of-8 shooting.
Russo’s play-making skills also deserve mention. Soon after entering, he shuffled a cross-court pass to Watson for an open 3. Early in the second half he found Terrell Carter for an easy bucket after seeing Carter had the lane sealed. Later, while running the floor on the fast break, he waited until a defender closed on him before lobbing the ball to Deshon Taylor for a dunk.
“He does a lot of different things. His on-ball defense, that’s something he doesn’t get as much credit for as he should,” Watson said. “He’s a also great passer for his size. It’s rare to have a 6-9 guy who can move the ball like that.”
Russo played a significant part in Fresno State’s NCAA Tournament run last March. His role on this year’s team was set up to be even larger. Instead, a once-promising senior season has been derailed by missteps and inconsistencies.
But it’s not too late. Russo has one more chance, probably his last, to script a new ending to his Bulldogs career.
The rest is up to him.
FRESNO STATE VS. NEW MEXICO
- Saturday: 3 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 15-11, 7-7 Mountain West; Lobos 16-10, 9-5
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Notable: The Lobos have won 7 of 9, including a 78-73 victory over Boise State on Tuesday, rebounding from a stretch where they lost three in a row. Included was a loss to UNLV, which is at the bottom of the conference standings. Elijah Brown led New Mexico with 27 points in its victory over the Broncos, and the junior guard is second in the Mountain West in scoring, averaging 19.1 per game. Brown had 19 against the Bulldogs in the Dec. 28 conference opener, going 14 of 14 at the free-throw line in the Lobos’ 78-73 home victory.