My question seemed to startle Rodney Terry a little. That wasn’t the intent, honest. I just wanted to hear his answer.
What is the Fresno State men’s basketball team playing for right now?
Terry’s eyes flashed, then shot me an incredulous look.
“We’re trying to win the league,” the fifth-year coach replied with an ever-so-slight chuckle.
For every Mountain West Conference team not named San Diego State, that’s beginning to look like a hopeless cause. The Aztecs were 11-0 entering Wednesday night’s game at Save Mart Center with a 4 1/2 -game lead over the Bulldogs, who played without their starting center or power forward.
You’re still playing for the league championship.
Fresno State men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry
Even an upset would leave the Bulldogs tied for second, three games behind San Diego State in the loss column with seven games remaining in the regular season. Four of those are on the road, where Fresno State is 2-3 in conference play.
The more likely scenario – an Aztecs victory – would place those conference title hopes on critical life support.
“This regular season is not wrapped up,” Terry insisted. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played. San Diego State has been on the brink of losing four games, and they’ve won them. Even though they’re up four or five games on everyone else, you’re still playing for the league championship.”
To emphasize his point, Terry reached into the right front pocket of his sweatsuit and pulled out a folded up piece of paper with some typed notes.
He showed me the first note, written at 7:56 a.m., and read aloud: “We have enough dogs in the kennel to win the Mountain West Conference.”
“That’s what I had in mind here,” Terry said, folding up the paper and stuffing it back into this pocket. “That’s what we’re playing for.”
There’s no guarantee they’re going to win out. The league is still wide open.
Rodney Terry on 11-0 San Diego State
While it was fun to get such a demonstrative response, Terry’s answer was well within the expected realm. Of course the Bulldogs are still trying to win the league title. What is he supposed to say?
Also, Terry is partially correct. The Aztecs have not been infallible. They’ve won a few close games. Saturday night they benefited from a blown call to win at home in overtime against New Mexico, the same team that dusted Fresno State in its own building.
Before starting 11-0 against the Mountain West, San Diego State had a losing record against Division I opponents. Which is why the Aztecs aren’t ranked in the Top 25 or getting much love from the computer polls, where they’re 47th in RPI and 65th on KenPom.com.
Internet bracketologists are pegging the MW as a one-bid league with respect to the NCAA Tournament. Meaning the Aztecs (or any other team) must win the conference tournament next month to be invited.
Which kind of mutes the importance of Fresno State, in Terry’s words, “trying to win the league.”
Besides getting to hang a new banner in Save Mart Center’s rafters, there’s really no other reward.
Certainly, there are benefits to winning as many regular-season games as possible.
The Bulldogs must secure a top-five seed to avoid having to play four games in four days in Las Vegas. And they’d sure like to finish second or third, which would postpone the seemingly inevitable matchup with San Diego State until the final.
In the middle of February, a college basketball coach can’t come out and say, “We’re playing for conference tournament seeding.”
But in the middle of February, a college basketball coach can’t come out and say, “We’re playing for conference tournament seeding.”
He can’t say it to the fans, or write it in the notes he uses to motivate players. Because it’s not much of a rallying cry.
Yet this is exactly where we are, and where the program once again finds itself stuck. One month to go, and the season’s hopes hinging on winning the conference tournament.
Fresno State is so far down in the computer rankings (120th in RPI and 136th by KenPom) that an invitation to the 32-team NIT seems out of reach, too. Not without a flurry of victories, a task made even more difficult by the absence of Karachi Edo and Torren Jones.
While Terry is inclined to allow Edo’s left wrist as much healing time as it needs, Jones’ status remains murky. School officials will only say the 6-foot-9 junior is dealing with an “undisclosed medical issue.” However, it’s apparent the issue is not an injury.
We’re just waiting that process through.
Rodney Terry on Torren Jones’ status
Jones was not a participant in Tuesday’s practice, but he was on the bench for Wednesday night’s game.
“We’re just waiting that process through,” Terry said.
The coach was talking about his starting center but could have meant the regular season as a whole.
I don’t doubt for a second that Fresno State is still playing to win the Mountain West title. From the outside, though, it’s starting to look like playing out the string.