Scouting Report: Fresno State

The Air Force Falcons exist in a conference that figures to put four teams in the NCAA tournament: UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, and Colorado State. Guess who's in fifth place in the conference? That's right. Are the odds in favor of the Falcons? No. Can they put themselves on the bubble with a strong five weeks? Yes.


It's been awhile since Air Force could reasonably hope for a fifth-place finish in the Mountain West. Now, the path is clear for coach Dave Pilipovich's team, which took care of business in Wyoming and took advantage of the fact that the Cowboys' leading scorer, Luke Martinez, was not able to take the floor. With Boise State plummeting and Nevada unable to make a move, a fifth-place finish looks like a very attainable goal. If Air Force can achieve that goal, it should definitely make the NIT, which would be a substantial step forward for the program. If the Falcons can combine the avoidance of bad Mountain West losses with the attainment of high-value scalps in the league, they might be able to get to the bubble by Selection Sunday. The percentages suggest that the Falcons face a steep uphill climb, but do keep one point in mind about the bubble this year: It's going to be weak, arguably weaker than last year (which was really bad).

The Pac-12 Conference is looking like it will get four NCAA bids this year. The SEC? Three. The ACC? No more than four at this point. Plenty of bids are being left on the table by the power conferences. Air Force has a lot of work to do, but if the Falcons CAN make a move, yes, they WILL be in the conversation on March 17, when CBS trots out the NCAA Tournament Selection Show and goes to Greg Gumbel for the unveiling of the brackets.

The landscape has changed in the Mountain West, and the changes point to a brighter outlook for Air Force basketball. Can the Falcons run with this, at least to the point that they can gain some stature from the coming weeks?

FRESNO STATE AT-A-GLANCE

Fresno State hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2001 under Jerry Tarkanian. The program used to enjoy a considerable home-court advantage at old Selland Arena, but at the new Save Mart Center, the Bulldogs have lost the intimidating environment they used to depend on to help them through a college basketball season. Old buildings don't generate luxury-suite revenues, but their less comfortable seating arrangements keep fans close to the court and more emotionally involved. Fresno State's home crowds just don't have the bite they once possessed, and that's been one of several reasons the Bulldogs have lost traction as a program.

This season has been a replay of the past several ones in the inland California Valley. Fresno State hasn't enjoyed a winning campaign since 2007, and the Bulldogs are well on their way to another sub-.500 slog through winter under current coach Rodney Terry, who is in the second season of a long-term rebuilding project in Fresno. The Bulldogs own a win over Wyoming; other than that, their portfolio is quite barren. They've lost to one of the worst Texas teams of the past 15 years. They've stumbled against Washington State and were eclipsed by UC Irvine. Southern Illinois smoked the Bulldogs, and Nevada knocked them off. This is, in short, the worst team in the Mountain West, meaning that Air Force has an opportunity… no, not merely to win, but to win without pushing its starters too much. The Falcons need to be able to win this game with enough comfort that their starters will be fresh for San Diego State on Saturday. How you win doesn't always matter, but it does for Air Force in this spot.

FRESNO STATE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Shooting percentage: 39.9. National rank: 310 (out of 345).

Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 40.4. National rank: 336.

Possessions per 40 minutes: 64.2. National rank: 300.

Points per possession: 0.899. National rank: 302.

Assists per game: 9. National rank: 343.

Rebounding percentage: 47.3. National rank: 302.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Kevin Foster –
Senior, 6-8, 230 2012-13: 8.1 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game

Foster, averaging just under six and a half rebounds per game, is Fresno State's best rebounder. That tells you how impotent this team is on the glass. This isn't a knock on Foster as much as it is a commentary on how limited this team is in so many ways. If the rest of this team was as dedicated to helping out on the boards as Foster, the Bulldogs would be in better shape. The thing to realize about Fresno State's weakness on the glass is that the Bulldogs don't shoot well in the first place. They need to compensate for a lack of shooting touch with prolific rebounding, especially at the offensive end of the floor. The fact that Fresno can't compensate for its most glaring deficiencies is precisely what explains the Bulldogs' presence in the Mountain West cellar.

Forward – Jerry Brown – Junior, 6-7, 210; 2012-13: 6.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg

He's not the governor of California – not this Jerry Brown – but the junior contributes on the glass, given that he's a lanky player without a great deal of power. Brown's ability to get his hands on the ball is something of a curse, though, in the sense that he doesn't do much with the rock when he holds it. Brown hits only 40.2 percent of his shots and doesn't bother to attempt many three-pointers. He is easy to guard, a characteristic which applies to almost everyone on the Fresno State roster.

Guard – Aaron Anderson – Freshman, 6-3, 190; 2012-13: 2.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.4 assists per game

Anderson is only a freshman, so he gets at least a partial pass for his low level of statistical output. The other thing to keep in mind about Anderson is that while he's technically a starter, backup Allen Huddleston, the second-highest scorer on the team (9.6 points per game), averages starter-level minutes at 24.2 per game. Anderson gets an average of only 17 per contest.

Guard – Marvelle Harris – Freshman, 6-4, 200; 2012-13: 8.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.4 apg

Harris's scoring output is modest, so the fact that he averages under 1.5 assists per game comes across as a disappointment. However, before one knocks Harris (and no one else) for this shortcoming, one has to remember that an assist can't exist if a teammate doesn't knock down a shot. No one on the FSU roster who has played at least 14 games this season has hit more than 48.5 percent of his shots, and the player who shoots 48.5 percent from the field, Tanner Giddings, hasn't received very much playing time of late. Only two players on this team average at least 24 minutes of playing time and hit at least 46 percent of their shots; Harris is one of them, but the freshman doesn't take many shots to begin with. The well runs dry for this team with far too much regularity, and that's why Fresno State prefers to play at a slow pace. Tempo is what can keep the Bulldogs competitive even when they're unable to score; just ask Wyoming, the loser of a 49-36 decision against Fresno State earlier in the season.

Guard – Tyler Johnson – Junior, 6-2, 180; 2012-13: 11.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg

Johnson is the best scorer on the Bulldogs. He hits 49.1 percent of his threes, but he has attempted only 53 of them in 18 games (he missed one of Fresno's 19 games) this season. His ability to provide scoring punch minimizes the need for him to be a distributor of the ball, but one is struck by the fact that no Fresno State player averages more than Johnson's 1.8 assists per game (a total that is matched by Huddleston off the bench). Moreover, if a team is going to have only one double-figure scorer, said scorer needs to average 22 points a game instead of Johnson's (rounded) total of 12. Johnson's positive features only serve to magnify the impotence of the Bulldogs as a whole.

Bench

We've mentioned Huddleston. The other two players Rodney looks to in an eight-man rotation are center Robert Upshaw and guard Kevin Olekaibe. Upshaw averages 4.3 rebounds per game and 2.3 blocked shots per game. Olekaibe averages 7.7 points per contest.

Fresno State's bench, as a percentage of team output, carries its fair share of the workload. The problem is that the Bulldogs' starting five doesn't produce at a much higher level. Let's also not focus too much on scoring or ball distribution. If Fresno State could rebound twice as well as it currently does, the Bulldogs wouldn't be fighting such uphill battles all the time.

Keys to the Game

1) Rebound.
If Fresno State can't get second-chance points and compensate for its inability to hit shots in its initial offensive sets, it will have a very hard time winning games. Attention to detail on the glass offers Air Force a safe and sure path to victory.

2) Strike fast, close early, rest the starters. Air Force needs to play the first 12 minutes with energy, focus and precision. There's a lot of value to be gained from a quick start that can establish a 15-point lead by the time the under-eight-minute television timeout arrives. If Air Force can knock Fresno State to the canvas, it can put itself in position to build a huge lead midway through the second half and coast to the finish line. Such an emphatic win will keep the fuel tank full for San Diego State on Saturday, an important goal in the longer course of this season. Beating the mediocre opponents in the conference with minimal expenditures of energy is precisely what will enable teams in Air Force's position to take down the elite programs in the Mountain West over the next several weeks.

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