FRESNO, Calif. (KSEE) – On Monday in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Fresno State men’s basketball team will open conference play against Colorado State.
And then two days later, the Bulldogs will play the Rams again in Fort Collins.
Mountain West teams playing each other in back-to-back games, at the same site, is just another unique aspect of this COVID-adjusted season, which has seen the Bulldogs get affected as much as anybody.
In a normal season, by late December, the Bulldogs would have usually played 10 or more non-conference games and been almost two months into their season.
Not in 2020.
“Mentally, it’s been a little tough,” said junior guard Junior Ballard, after Fresno State’s recent win over Fresno Pacific.
In fact, when the Bulldogs face the Rams on Monday, it will be only the third game of the year for them. And their first game against Division I competition.
“We’ve got eight new guys, and we’re trying to get them all on the same page, and understanding what it’s gonna take to win in this league,” said Fresno State assistant coach Tarvish Felton on a recent zoom call.
The Bulldogs have already had to pause basketball activities multiple times because of COVID-19, so the only games on their resume this season are a 40-point win against William Jessup, an NAIA school (on Nov. 25), and a 13-point win against Division II Fresno Pacific (on Dec. 19).
“You know, for us to be good enough to win in this league, to have a chance to be the ‘Top Dog’ at the end of the league, we gotta do a a lot of things a lot better,” said Felton.
The lack of games is going to create some challenges for the Bulldog coaching staff as conference play begins.
“Maybe you can simplify some things,” said Felton.
Conditioning could also be an issue early on, especially with Fresno State playing at elevation this week in Fort Collins.
“Game condition is definitely different than practice,” said sophomore guard Isaiah Hill. “So the more games we play, hopefully everybody will get in better shape and we can play longer minutes.”
And with four brand-new Division I transfers (including Hill and Ballard) joining an already inexperienced roster, at this point the process of figuring out who should be playing, with whom and and how minutes, is still ongoing.
“You know, I have a little bit of a pecking order (with the playing rotation),” said head coach Justin Hutson after the Fresno Pacific win. “But with the lack of practice time, the lack of intrasquad scrimmages, no games, you have to try to play these guys early to see what you have.”
So that is the bad news. But there is some good news as well: the Bulldogs have ten guards listed on their roster, which should allow for some versatility and depth on the perimeter.
“I think we have a lot of guys who are confident in their own games,” said Hill. “And we just gotta keep playing together, and I think everything will come together.”
In addition to the talented guards, the Bulldogs have Orlando Robinson anchoring their lineup. He is one of the best big men in the conference.
“We got enough good players that if we get them all on the same page, we have a chance to be a really good team,” said Felton.
And some recent news also has the Bulldogs feeling more optimistic.
The NCAA is allowing all Division I transfers to be immediately eligible this season, which has enabled Ballard (Cal Poly) to already play for the Bulldogs.
Ballard, a native of Stockton, led Cal Poly in scoring last season as a sophomore. He was impressive in his Bulldog debut against Fresno Pacific.
“The role for me? It’s whatever it is,” said Ballard. “I just wanna win.”
“You gotta be valley tough,” said Felton, about the challenges of playing conference basketball after all the challenges the Bulldogs have faced this season. “And just show up everyday, and just go play.”
“Colorado State is on a different level,” summed up Hill. “So we just gotta go out there and compete, play basketball. And we’re gonna be alright.”
Tipoff on Monday night in Fort Collins is set for 5 pm PT. Colorado State (3-1) is coming off a 20-win season and returns four starters. The Rams did not play their first game until December 12th because of COVID-19 issues within their program.
Colorado State was picked to finish in fifth place in the Mountain West Conference’s preseason poll, while Fresno State was picked to finish in eighth place.