We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #6 Fresno State.
Team: #6 Fresno State
Coach: Steve Cleveland, fifth season (63-63)
Last year’s record: 13-21 (3-13 WAC, 9th)
Why they’re here: Stuck last year in the very depths of the conference basement, Fresno State is poised to leap at least into the WAC’s middle tier — and perhaps higher. This season’s Bulldog squad is loaded with young talent inside and outside. Coach Steve Cleveland and his team will be hungry to prove its last-place finish last year was nothing more than a one-year aberration for a program that’s regularly mixed it up at the top of the conference.
Returning are standouts Paul George and Sylvester Seay, who combined to average nearly 30 points per game. The addition of prep star Greg Smith gives the Bulldogs the WAC’s best freshman recruit and JC transfer point guard Steven Shepp fills what had been a gaping hole in Fresno State’s roster. Perhaps the only question mark on the projected starting five is shooting guard Mychal Ladd, whose production and efficiency need to rise.
Fresno State is going to be relying heavily on freshmen and a couple JC transfers to fill in the gaps and spell the starters. None of the Bulldogs’ returning reserves did much of anything last year — combined, they contributed all of 6.6 points per game. Like the Vandals last year, Fresno State’s starting five will have to shoulder a heavy burden and if they falter or get hurt, all bets are off for a Bulldog resurgence.
Why they could finish higher: There’s no shortage of talent in the WAC’s Central Valley outpost this year, and the separation in midpack isn’t great. Particularly if Shepp pans out, the opportunity is there for the Bulldogs to climb into the conference’s top third. A run at the title is unlikely this year, but an Idaho-like laughingstock-to-contender rise would give Fresno State a solid foundation for 2010-11.
Why they could finish lower: The Bulldogs ranked among the bottom third of the conference in both scoring and percentage defense and ended the season with a conference-worst scoring margin of -2.1. With high-scoring run-and-gun offenses looking like the norm in the WAC this season, that doesn’t bode well. If Cleveland can’t fix Fresno State’s defense, the Bulldogs aren’t going to make much of an improvement.
Most Valuable Player: Paul George (14.3 ppg, 1.9 apg, 6.2 rpg) — One of the NCAA’s best freshmen last year, George promises to be even more exciting to watch this year. The versatile swingman has the 6-8 size to play in the post, combined with the agility and shooting prowess of a guard. With better leadership at point guard and a season of experience, George will be a tough man for any WAC defender to guard.
Most Important Player: Steven Shepp (7.4 ppg, 5.8 apg) — One big reason for the Bulldogs’ poor season: ineffective play from point guard Bryce Cartwright. Neither particularly proficient at scoring or dishing, Cartwright’s out the door and Shepp is a shoo-in to take his place. If Shepp can translate his JC prowess into the WAC (no mean feat given the point guard quality in the conference) Fresno State should have a solid season.
Non-conference degree of difficulty: 3 — For the WAC, the Bulldogs are taking on a solid schedule. Sure, they’ve got a cupcake or two in the form of Cal State-Bakersfield and Pepperdine, but they also face BYU, San Diego State and a 30-win North Dakota State squad. Bonus points are earned for traveling to Corvallis to face a resurgent Oregon State program.
Fun fact: The Bulldogs had just one losing season from 1996 to 2007 and earned consecutive 9-seeds to the Big Dance in 2000 and 2001. But the wheels fell off after that, as Fresno State has lost 19 and 21 games in each of the last two years.
Predicted record: 15-16 (7-9 WAC)