Sunday, January 10, 2010

SJSU travels to Fresno Monday night

How it is possible for Fresno State to sport a so-so record? We ask this because the Bulldogs have explosive point producers in conjunction with a team holding opponents to 39% shooting. Steve Cleveland's team also leads the WAC in blocked shots at 4.5 a game and in steals with 8.1 a contest.

All this makes it appear like Fresno State should be undefeated.

The Fresno Bee's Marek Warszawski wrote this about Bulldog basketball on January 4 -- to what degree it is accurate is subject to opinion:

It didn't make the paper, but the lasting image I took from Fresno State's victory over Boise State on Saturday night wasn't Paul George's game-winning bucket with 15 seconds left.

It was watching coach Steve Cleveland hold one finger above his head (as if to say "Hold it for one shot!") as George drove the lane, split two defenders and swooped in for the layup.

What can one say about the 2009-2010 Bulldogs? Often exciting, always exasperating.

Based solely on talent, Fresno State should be a factor in the WAC race. (Only Nevada, New Mexico State and perhaps Louisiana Tech can match the 'Dogs in that department.) But as we all know, basketball games aren't decided on talent alone. Coaching is equally important. Not necessarily good or bad coaching, mind you, but whether the players actually listen to what's coming from the bench.

The Bulldogs, from what I've observed attending every home game, tend to fall short in that department.

First off, I'm not saying that the Bulldogs totally ignore Cleveland's coaching. They don't. But in critical moments, there's a tendency to free-lance and rely on one-on-one moves.

When it works out (like it did Saturday night), everyone forgets and goes home happy. But when it doesn't, well, we all know how that turns out, too. (See last season's 3-13 WAC record.)

Just look at Utah State. The Aggies haven't won two straight WAC titles (and are favored for a third) because they put the most talent on the floor. They did it because Stew Morrill is an excellent coach and recruits players who operate within his system.

Sometimes, when watching Fresno State, I get the feeling that highlight-reel plays that get thousands of YouTube hits are more important to this team than fundamentals like blocking out or executing set plays. And that's not just coaching. It's having players who are willing to let themselves be coached instead of thinking they can get by on God-given talent.

The schedule certainly works in Fresno State's favor. If the Bulldogs can start 3-0 at home (against the three teams picked to finish behind him in the WAC race), I think the momentum will carry over to key road games at Louisiana Tech (Jan. 16) and New Mexico State (Jan. 18).

But next time Cleveland asks the 'Dogs to hold the ball for the last shot with the game on the line, they ought to listen to him.

As we wrote earlier, here is one of the X-factors that is working in the Dogs' favor:

"...FSU coach Steve Cleveland attributes the [positive defensive] stats to a new defensive philosophy — a willingness to embrace the zone. He's been primarily a man-to-man stylist over his 30-plus years of coaching. "I think changing the defense, in some ways kind of takes teams longer to get into a groove," Cleveland said. "I think one thing we really struggled with last year in our man is, we really allowed people to kind of pound it at us, and it really kind of broke us down. We're gonna use a combination. We're gonna use what works, but you're going to see us on misses and makes play man and zone, and switch defenses often at timeouts and dead balls."

Let's see how it all plays out for both teams on Monday night in Fresno.

The Season So Far

11/17/09 @ Northern Arizona W, 65-59
11/19/09 @ Seattle University L, 85-84
11/23/09 vs. San Diego State L, 62-58
11/28/09 @ Santa Clara L, 74-67
12/01/09 vs. Pacific L, 70-58
12/06/09 vs. San Diego W, 69-37
12/08/09 @ Pepperdine W, 80-72
12/12/09 vs. BYU L, 72-67
12/17/09 vs. UC Davis W, 68-57
12/19/09 vs. North Dakota State W, 68-54
12/21/09 @ Montana L, 59-56
12/23/09 @ Oregon State L, 73-65
12/28/09 vs. Colorado State W, 73-50
01/02/10 vs. Boise State W, 71-68
01/09/10 vs. Hawai'i W, 78-64

Steve Cleveland's Starting Five

6-foot-10 Greg Smith - the odds-on favorite for WAC Rookie of the Year, he is averaging 12 points (60% shooting from the floor) and 6.5 rebounds each time out, plus a team-leading 27 blocks.

6-10 Sylvester Seay - averaging 16 ppg. along with six boards, he shoots well from the floor (almost 50%) but only 26% from three-point range (and he is third on the squad in long-range attempts) -- his attitude was a problem earlier this season but that issue seems to be resolved.

6-foot-8 Paul George - call him the stats producer as he tops the team in scoring (17) and rebounding (8.8), plus the most three-point attempts, the most fouls, the most steals, the most turnovers and is second in assists -- plus, don't foul him as he is shooting 90% at the line

6-foot-5 Mychal Ladd - how's this for an anomaly as the kid is shooting 44% on his three-pointers but 40% overall, this despite having marvelous athleticism -- also has just 11 free throw attempts on the season so it doesn't take a weatherman to know how to defend him

6-foot-2 Steven Shepp - FSU badly needed a viable point guard and brought in Shepp from the junior college ranks and he has compiled 72 assists to 41 turnovers, is tied with Justin Graham at a league-leading 4.8 assists per game, while shooting well (42% overall and from long range)

The Cavalry

6-foot-8 Nedeljko Golubovic - his stats and playing time are way down, especially his shooting at 28% -- injured in the BYU game with a torn tendon in one hand and a hyper-extended a finger in another

6-foot-7 Jerry Brown - a fresman just feeling his way this season

6-foot-4 Brandon Sperling - the backup at the point, he's not much of a shooter (23%) or creator

The Bulldog Roster by position

Greg Smith Center 6-10 250 FR

Justin Johnson Forward 6-6 205 FR
Sylvester Seay Forward 6-10 235 SR
Nedeljko Golubovic Forward 6-8 245 JR

Jerry Brown, Jr. Guard/Forward 6-7 195 FR
Paul George Guard/Forward 6-8 210 SO
Garrett Johnson Guard/Forward 6-5 190 FR

Taylor Kelly Guard 6-2 200 FR
Mychal Ladd Guard 6-5 190 SO
Steven Shepp Guard 6-2 170 SO
Brandon Sperling Guard 6-4 180 SO

Jonathan Wills Guard 6-6 180 JR (is redshirting)

What To Expect

* Greg Smith a tall and wide so his matchup with Chris Oakes will be quite the battle

* Who will match up with Paul George? It looks like Mac Peterson if the Spartans go with the lineup that has been employed of late and that will be a load.

* Adrian Oliver won't be facing a stellar defender a la some of the games this season but that probably only means he'll be facing multiple roadblocks in his maneuvers on the court.

* Fresno doesn't have the scoring power in the backcourt that Nevada featured so can SJSU outscore the Bulldogs there to make up for an expected deficit in the frontcourt?

* Does the sophomore George go the NBA after this season or next?

* We also predict the freshman Smith doesn't wear the Bulldog uniform for four years.

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