The last time Fresno and UTEP played a basketball game, Filiberto Rivera scored 19 points and dished out 12 assists in a UTEP win, its ok close your eyes, and remember that era for a sec. Much has changed for both schools since then: Matt from the Mountain West Connection lets us know what’s new with our old WAC rivals.
MinerRush: Fresno reeled off wins in 9 of their last 12 after losing 10 out of 13 games during an early stretch, what changed down the latter part of the season?
Matt from MWC: The simple answer is that the Bulldogs simply started playing better defense. If you examine the Bulldogs' conference run, you'll see that they coughed up 78.8 points per game in that 1-7 start. Granted, that number is skewed a bit by two overtime losses, but that figure dropped to 63.9 in the subsequent winning stretch. The big blemishes there include an otherworldly shooting performance against SDSU and getting run off the court against New Mexico, so good teams can still get their licks in.
MR: With this being the best finish in school history in 8 years, how are the fans reacting to a CBI berth?
MWC: On campus, the reaction has been a bit muted as far as I can tell. I believe that the larger community is hungry for a winner, though, and that most fans understand that any kind of postseason bid is a step in the right direction. The key is preaching patience, since coach Rodney Terry needs time to build a sustainable foundation and he's lost key pieces for various reasons.
MR: Paul Watson earned freshman of the year in the always solid MWC, was this because of the late season charge, or has the kid been productive since the start of the season?
MWC: Watson acquitted himself well in the earliest parts of the non-conference schedule against good teams like UC Irvine, Pittsburgh and Cal Poly (hey, they are tourney bound). The offensive numbers don't jump out at you, but he has very quietly been a consistent performer on the glass, finishing first among MWC freshmen in rebounding. The points will come with time, but that is a valuable contribution.
MR: Looking at stats, Tyler Johnson has some pretty impressive numbers from behind the three point line, is he a guy who can create his own shot, or just a set shooter?
MWC: I believe he is a scorer who is more than capable of taking matters into his own hands if the occasion calls for it. Compared to other prolific scorers in the MWC, Johnson can drive the lane and draw attention just as well as he can bomb from behind the arc, evidenced by a 80% free throw rate that supplements his conference-best 48% from three. You could make the argument that maybe he doesn't shoot enough, but Fresno has plenty of offensive weapons.
MR: How was the program changed since UTEP and Fresno State were WAC mates?
MWC: The program languished for a long time after the Jerry Tarkanian era, both on the court and in the classroom. The latter problem got a fix when Steve Cleveland was the coach from 2005-10, but the team's place in the standings wasn't good enough for him to keep his job. Thankfully, Terry has built a degree of respectability and has started to attract some very good talent, like Robert Upshaw (a local 7-footer who eventually transferred, but keeping him in Fresno to begin with was an achievement in itself) and Cezar Guerrero (who transferred from Oklahoma State). In a year or two, the team should be in a position to seriously challenge for a conference title for the first time in about 15 years.
MR: California dreaming here, but what do you think the reaction of the people around the league would be if UTEP joined the MWC in basketball?
MWC: I like to think the powers that be wouldn't mind having a Texas imprint within the conference. There's also a bit of proximal rivalry between UTEP and UNM, and the Miners have always been a quality product that would fit right in with the major players here.