EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of an 11-part series previewing the University of New Mexico’s 10 Mountain West Conference opponents, and its nonleague schedule breakdown. The order of MWC teams will publish daily in reverse order of the preseason medial poll. To see list of all previews, CLICK HERE.
Maybe as much as any team in the Mountain West Conference a season ago, the Fresno State Bulldogs were still very much an improving squad last March.
The team beat UNLV in Las Vegas to end the regular season, nearly knocked off New Mexico on Feb. 13 and twice put a scare into Colorado State with single-digit losses in Fort Collins on Feb. 27 and in the MWC tournament March 13.
At season’s end, the Bulldogs were the most improved team in conference play thanks to disciplined defense and a seemingly total buy-in to what second year coach Rodney Terry was asking of them.
The obvious trajectory upward made them a trendy offseason pick among media to make a huge leap this season. That was before a series of offseason events dropped them back into a team with huge question marks.
First, senior-to-be guard Kevin Olekaibe left the team and transferred home to UNLV to be closer to an ailing father. Promising 7-foot sophomore center Robert Upshaw, a former Top-100 recruit, was dismissed from the team after a third violation of team rules and transferred to Washington. In early September, starting sophomore forward Braeden Anderson, who had committed to the Kansas Jayhawks, hurt his neck in a car crash that killed another man. While Anderson is expected to make a full recovery, the likelihood of his being available this season is slim.
All three would have started this season for Fresno State.
“We’ve had a setback or two between Robert and Braeden, who I thought was going to have a tremendous year for him in year two for him as a sophomore, but we still have enough pieces to be really good,” Terry said. “I’m still really excited about coaching this team and seeing them grow and get better as the year goes along.”
The Bulldogs return leading scorer Tyler Johnson, maybe one of the league’s more underrated players after averaging 12.1 points per game on a squad that scored a league-low 59.9 points per game.
The Bulldogs also get Cezar Guerrero, a sophomore point guard transfer from Oklahoma State.
“Cezar gives us a guy who has competed at the highest level,” Terry said. “(He’s) a guy who I think will be a dual threat who can score the basketball and distribute the basketball. We’ve really tried to challenge him to make other guys around him better because we know that he’s a very competitive guy and if it were up to him, he’d try to go and take on the whole team himself.”
While Terry doesn’t mind his team having a label of being a tough defensive squad (the Bulldogs allowed just 61.0 points per game in 2012-13), he said he hopes that label expands this season with the backcourt leadership of Johnson and Guerrero.
“We want to score, too,” Terry said. “… We want to get up and down. We want to play an exciting brand of basketball.”
Fresno State Bulldogs
Head coach: Rodney Terry, 24-39 at Fresno State and overall (third season)
Starters returning: 2
2012-13 record: 11-19 (5-11 in Mountain West Conference)
Preseason media poll: 8th of 11 teams
vs. UNM: Jan. 18 at Fresno State (Fresno State does not play in the Pit this season due to the league’s unbalanced schedule)