Conference tournaments are getting underway across the country.
For CSU men’s basketball, the fun starts Thursday at 9:30 p.m. MT when the Rams (26-5, 13-5 MW) take on Fresno State in the Mountain West tournament on CBS Sports Network.
“I really believe we can do some damage on neutral courts,” CSU senior forward J.J. Avila said following Saturday night’s win over Utah State. “There’s no more homecourt advantage from here on out. We can be a scary team.”
The matchup with the Bulldogs (15-16, 10-8 MW) is a relatively safe one considering that the Rams swept the Bulldogs in the regular season. It’s hard to beat a team three times, but Fresno State did nothing in the previous match-ups to indicate that the third time will be the charm.
CSU just put together one of the best regular seasons in program history and is riding a five-game winning streak. The first win during that streak came at Fresno State, when Daniel Bejarano led CSU to a 81-73 win. In the first meeting, it was Avila who did the bulk of the damage in an 80-57 win.
The common theme in both games was the Rams’ dominance on the glass. They out-rebounded the Bulldogs by a total of 90-58 in the series.
“We’ve got to keep them off the boards, even though we’ve outrebounded them both times,” Bejarano said. “They might switch it up. They might start Karachi Edo, and he did hurt us at Fresno, so we will have our hands pretty full.”
All-conference guard Marvelle Harris leads Fresno State with 5.1 rebounds per game (though it was Bejarano who pulled down eight rebounds in both meetings). Harris can impact the game in a variety of ways with his playmaking and defense, but he needs to make shots too for the Bulldogs to win.
The junior is one of the more consistent scorers in the conference (17.2 points per game in MW play) but has gone 8-for-25 from the field against the Rams this year.
In the home loss to CSU, the Bulldogs found themselves down 55-48 at the midway point of the second half. Over the next 10 minutes, Harris went 1-for-6 from the field and 1-for-3 from the free throw line.
Meanwhile, his teammate Cezar Guerrero scored 10 points in the last five minutes. If he had gotten going a little earlier, it could have been a whole different outcome.
“If you leave him open, he’s going to hit the shot every time,” CSU junior guard Joe De Ciman said of Guerrero. “He’s playing at a very high level. And Marvelle Harris – I think everybody in the league knows his talent. We know how good he is, but unfortunately, it’s not just those two guys.”
That is where the Bulldogs become dangerous. They are not the deepest team, but they do have scorers capable of heating up in a hurry.
“We have to contain penetration,” Bejarano said. “The biggest thing is defense. When they score over 60 or 65, they win … they can score in bunches and they have talented players.”
Fresno State still has some glaring weaknesses though, starting with its shallow rotation, which leads to foul trouble.
In the last game between the teams, CSU shot 23 free throws in the second half. It will be hard to match that number, but the Rams need to get to the line.
The players most adept at doing so might not be in the starting lineup, but are often in too close games. John Gillon was named MW Sixth Man of the Year and excels at getting to the line. If one of the starters is having an off night, head coach Larry Eustachy has options.
“Right now that’s our biggest strength,” De Ciman said. “Little John (Gillon), Gian (Clavell), Carlton (Hurst) and Fred (Richardson) are playing at very high levels when they get in the game. We don’t have a drop off when they get in and they have ended games for us.”
If the Rams get past the Bulldogs, they will face the winner of San Diego State and UNLV in the next round. The Aztecs and the Runnin’ Rebels are scheduled to tip off Thursday at 7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
Collegian Sports Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @emccarthy22.