Youthful Bulldogs Should Bring Passion, Energy to Court
Nov. 2, 2004
Although it may have seemed necessary, the Fresno State men's basketball team did not wear name tags during the first day of practice. They did not all take seats and introduce themselves, like third-graders do on the first day of school. And they did not refer to each other as, "Hey, you," until they became more familiar with the names of their teammates.
But it wouldn't have surprised any members of the coaching staff if that were the case. Saying the 2004-05 Bulldogs are young is like saying the Save Mart Center is big. Sure, it's true, but it also doesn't quite tell the full story.
Only two starters and three letterwinners return from last year's 14-15 (10-8 WAC) team that lost 10 of their last 15 and fell in the first round of the conference tournament - at home - to Boise State.
Of the 14 players on the Fresno State roster, 11 have never played in a Division I-A game before. Nine are freshmen. Another comes to the team after spending a year at JC and another walked on to the squad last year and redshirted. Young, sure. But eager? Oh yeah, says head coach Ray Lopes.
"I am really looking forward to coaching this team," Lopes said. "I think fans will really enjoy watching this group of players improve as the season goes along. And that's our goal - to improve. We'll be athletic, fast, and we should be able to cause some problems with that."
Lopes is ebullient when talking about this year's squad. He speaks of this team getting back to his vision of Bulldog basketball - playing hard, putting pressure on the opposition with strong defense, moving the ball up the court quickly in transition and getting better and better as the season progresses.
"This team is going to play hard," Lopes said. "We'll be better defensively than last year in the sense that we'll be able to put more pressure on the opponent. We'll be able to go nine, 10 and in some cases maybe even 11 deep, if healthy.
"Our tempo will be more aggressive offensively. You'll see more of a transition game, and we'll push the ball when he have the opportunity. Last year, we really couldn't do that as much as we wanted."
Bulldogs Heavy on Guards When Lopes speaks of the quickness and athleticism this team possesses, he is focusing primarily on the guard position, where Fresno State is stocked with loads of potential. The roster currently sports eight players at the guard position, six being freshman.
With a plentitude of players at the position, Lopes may use a three-guard lineup at times in 2004-05, utilizing their speed and athleticism to sprint the ball up the court and hound the opposition with pressure.
And while group is short on experience, it is expected to contribute immediately. And the leader of the guards could be Ja'Vance Coleman. A sophomore who initially came to Fresno State as a non-qualifier in 2002-03, Coleman starred at College of the Sequoias (Visalia, Calif.) last year, leading the Giants to a 28-2 record.
Coleman was a standout at Fresno's Washington Union High School as a prep athlete, and at COS he displayed why he was such a heavily sought recruit. He averaged 12.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists and was named the state JC Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-conference pick. His ability to drive to the basket as well as shoot from outside - he made 42 percent of his three-point attempts at COS - made him a very difficult player to guard, something that Lopes expects to continue at Fresno State.
"Ja'Vance is such an exciting player and an unreal talent," Lopes said. "He's got the strength and explosion you look for in a combo guard. He does so many things well - he dribbles, he passes, he shoots. I look for him to be one of our leading scorers this year. Not only this year, but especially down the road, Ja'Vance has a chance to be one of the best guards in the WAC."
Another local product who should also make an immediate contribution is Dwight O'Neil, who like Coleman, comes from local and state high school power Washington Union, which has produced such NBA talents as Chris Jefferies and DeShawn Stevenson and former Fresno State standout Demetrius Porter.
At Washington, O'Neil put up numbers comparable to some of the school's past greats, owning a scoring average of about 20 points per game despite facing defenses on a game-in, game-out basis whose sole purpose was to simply shut him down. He ended his career with the fourth-most points in school history and displayed his ability to pass by dishing out the seventh-most assists in section history.
O'Neil's ability to play anywhere from the one to the three position is one of his strengths. But Lopes is always quick to point out another positive he brings to the table - that he's a very good defender.
"Dwight is definitely going to help us on defense," Lopes said. "He's such a talented guard, and he has a chance to be an excellent player in this conference. Right now, he shoots good and is tough on defense. Perhaps his best asset is that he's such a tremendous competitor and slasher to the basket.
"He is going to develop into a very good guard for our program."
Also expected to contribute minutes immediately are Dominique White and Donovan Morris. The two freshmen are quite familiar with each other after playing two years together at Winchendon (Mass.) Prep School. While there, White served as the team's point guard while Morris was the two, where he could utilize his outside shot.
Like at Winchendon, which the duo led to the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council title last year, White and Morris will play the point and shooting guard positions, respectively. Both should see plenty of playing time right away.
"I like the athleticism both Dominique and Donovan possess. They are two different style players. Dominique is a true point guard. He has all of the qualities a coach would want in a point guard - he's got a high basketball I.Q., he's tough and he's a leader. What strikes me about him is his will. He'll just will the ball into the basket or will his team to a win.
"Donovan should really help us on the perimeter. He can shoot, pass and dribble. Most importantly, he's coachable, which means he is really going to improve here."
Rounding out the guards are freshmen Carl Ross, Jose Sanchez, David Brower and redshirt junior Chris Brazelton. Ross is another Washington Union product who impressed coaches with his play and energy level during preseason practice. Sanchez and Brower both help round out the guards and could see minutes given the situation.
Brazelton is one of the few returnees to this year's team. He is a walk-on who redshirted in 2003-04.
Young Forwards to Contribute Energy Even with the possibility of a three-guard lineup, Fresno State's forwards should play a vital role in the team's success. The Bulldogs have three players who all bring something positive to the table and who should, in their own way, help the team's fortunes.
Of the changes made during the offseason, one of the most notable was the switch of senior Dreike Bouldin from guard to forward. The Shreveport, La., native was very impressive at the end of last year, when he began to fulfill the coaching staff's expectations. In the last six games of 2003-04, Bouldin averaged 11.2 points and 8.3 rebounds. One of those contests was a breakout performance at Tulsa, against which he scoring a career-high 19 points while registering eight rebounds.
The move to forward should allow Bouldin to utilize his strengths. Considered a very athletic player, Bouldin was one of the team's top rebounders last year down the stretch and began to morph his ability to shoot from the outside and do damage from the inside as the season progressed.
"I think Dreike has made the greatest improvement from last year," said Lopes. "We've moved him to forward, and I think that's a more natural basketball position for him. It really allows him to do the things he does well. He'll rebound better and he'll score more. Dreike is bringing a lot of confidence to the table right now and that is being displayed in the leadership he is showing."
Bouldin is not eligible to play until Dec. 18 against Oregon. He'll miss the first six games in order to focus on his academics.
The other two forwards are both freshman, one an outstanding high school talent and the other opening eyes during preseason practice with his energy and solid play. Both should pay immediate dividends to the young squad.
Hector Hernandez comes to Fresno State after a stellar high school career at Denver's Abraham Lincoln High. After a junior campaign that saw him rack up averages of 23.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game, he was rated by several recruiting publications as one of the nation's top 50 high school players. He backed up that sentiment by averaging 20.5 points and 12 rebounds as a senior.
Prior to his sophomore year of high school, Hernandez moved to Denver from his native Chihuahua, Mexico, a city that also produced current NBA player Eduardo Najera, who Lopes recruited and coached at the University of Oklahoma. Based on their similar backgrounds, it is no surprise that Hernandez, who has played for the Mexican National Team, calls Najera his favorite player.
While not nearly up to Najera's level as of yet, Hernandez, says Lopes, has the drive and motivation to make a strong impact on the Bulldogs.
"Hector has a chance to develop into a special player," Lopes said. "He's already very skilled for a 6-8 guy. He can shoot, he passes well, he makes good decisions and he has a tremendous inner desire. He always works hard and he always plays hard. Hector is very motivated and should be a player our fans really grow to enjoy."
Rounding out the forwards is Berry, to whom Lopes drew an immediate liking for his enthusiasm on the court. While not always the flashiest player, Berry has the junkyard dog mentality that the Bulldogs' head coach often speaks of. That quality could enable the freshman Berry to see quality minutes once the season gets underway.
"Chris is like the Energizer bunny with his enthusiasm. Down the road, Chris is the type of guy who could be a leader for us. He's always around the ball and is always doing something to help the team win. He looks unassuming, but he gets the job done."
Al-Sayyad Anchors Team From Center Position Undoubtedly, the top player on this year's team entering 2004-05 is senior center Mustafa Al-Sayyad. The native of Sudan has undergone one of the most drastic improvements of any player in program history since he became a Bulldog in 2000. He is the only holdover from the Jerry Tarkanian Era, the head coach recruiting him as a project player who down the line would hopefully develop.
And that's precisely what has happened with Al-Sayyad. After playing sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, he redshirted his third year and then last year flourished, averaging 8.4 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds per game, a number that was good for second in the WAC. But it was the way he finished the season that opened eyes. In the last six games of 2003-04, the man known as "Moose" averaged 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest.
Those numbers caught the attention of the selection committee for the Pete Newell Big Man Camp, which invited Al-Sayyad to participate in the annual prestigious event. Add that to his solid year last season and the confidence with which he enters 2004-05, and it's no wonder Lopes is thinking of big things for his center.
"I'm so pleased with the growth Moose has shown in the three years that I've been here," Lopes said. "He's a great athlete and a hard worker, and he's beginning to show signs of being a team leader. I fully expect Moose to have an All-WAC type year. He's a dependable, go-to guy, and I think he has a chance to be outstanding this year and then play at the next level. I definitely don't think Moose's basketball career is going to end at Fresno State."
Also showing signs of improvement are Jack Marlow, a fan favorite who played limited minutes a year ago. Also a senior, Marlow entered preseason practice in considerably better physical condition than he was at any point last season, an attribute that should garner him more playing time.
Ability has never been a question with Marlow, who at times in 2003-04 would show flashes of his capabilities. A no-look, over the shoulder pass during a home win against Louisiana Tech, an Earth-shaking dunk over Hawaii's Julian Sensley in the WAC opener or his multiple tip-ins against Tech in Ruston, La. All of these were signs of what Marlow has to offer, and being in good condition has Lopes thinking positively about the big man.
"He's made tremendous improvements from last year. His conditioning is improved, and being in better shape means he can give us more quality minutes and more production. Jack has always played a good game, but now that he's in good condition, I think he can really help us out. It's unusual to have a guy with his size be able to score, pass and rebound like he does."
Schedule to Challenge, Improve Bulldogs Fresno State will play 13 games against teams that reached the postseason last year, a schedule Lopes finds perfect for his freshman-laden squad. After opening at home against Maryland-Eastern Shore, the Bulldogs hit the road to play at NCAA Tournament participant East Tennessee State for what should be one of the toughest tests of the non-conference season.
After the McCaffrey Classic, Fresno State will again be tested with a road contest at USC, which knocked off the Bulldogs in the Save Mart Center a year ago. Other non-conference matchups include Sacramento State, Oregon, Pacific and San Francisco.
The WAC road will be its typically arduous self. Nevada, which reached the NCAA Sweet 16 last year, and UTEP, which nearly pulled off an upset of Maryland in the NCAA first round, will match up with the Bulldogs two times each. NIT teams Boise State, Hawaii and Rice all expect to finish at or near the top of the conference heap come the end of the regular season.
This year's WAC Tournament is in Reno, Nev., from March 8-12, and Lopes is hoping that by then, the young team will have jelled into one that could make opponent's lives miserable.
"This team does not have lofty expectations," Lopes said. "Yes, we are young, but we are hungry. As we gain maturity, this team will continue to develop into one that should be very fun to watch. Like I've said, we are going to be athletic and we are going to play very hard. This group is going to be successful, and down the road the effort this team shows this year is going to lay the foundation for successful teams in the future."