Several weeks ago, head coach Wyking Jones reflected upon his team’s victory over Santa Clara by noting his guys had “grown up.” On Wednesday, Cal men’s basketball’s accelerated maturation process will be put to the test when it travels a couple hours south to battle Fresno State.
This battle between the Bears and Bulldogs will be defined by youth versus experience in the most extreme manner possible.
While Cal’s rotation features only one upperclassman in redshirt junior Paris Austin, Fresno State’s rotation boasts six upperclassmen, three of whom are seniors.
This isn’t a team where the upperclassmen play some minor role, either. Those six upperclassmen — Braxton Huggins, Deshon Taylor, Nate Grimes, New Williams, Sam Bittner and Noah Blackwell — account for 85 percent of the team’s points.
Unfortunately for Fresno State, it will be without Taylor against Cal and for the foreseeable future. The centerpiece of the offense suffered an elbow injury in practice and may be sidelined for several weeks, and the responsibilities will shift to his fellow veterans.
Leading this team of grizzled veterans is, ironically, first-year head coach Justin Hutson. But don’t get it twisted — Hutson has been around the block and had some great mentors along the way.
Before becoming the Bulldog’s latest head coach, Hutson spent 15 combined seasons as an assistant at Cal State Bakersfield, Cal Poly, San Diego State and UNLV. Hutson oversaw multiple conference championships and tournament appearances. In 2011, Hutson led an Aztecs team that made a Sweet 16 appearance and set the program record for wins in a season.
A fresh face may be in charge of the Bulldogs, but the defensive philosophy of former head coach Rodney Terry has remained firmly intact. The philosophy? Play defense, or don’t play.
With the defensive guru that is Hutson at the helm and a solid group already in place, Fresno State has become one of the premier defenses in the nation. Through nine games, the Bulldogs are allowing 67.7 points per game and rank third in the Mountain West Conference in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
These Bulldogs aren’t the type to go for those home run plays on defense. Rather, they constantly apply the type of pressure that naturally leads to steals and turnovers.
Leading the Bulldogs’ defense are those same upperclassmen. Huggins, Taylor, Williams, Bittner and Blackwell are each averaging at least one steal per game, and while Grimes doesn’t meet that qualifier, he can be excused considering he’s holding down the paint, averaging 1.8 blocks per game.
With Taylor possibly out of commission for a good chunk of the season, much of the offensive responsibility will shift to Huggins, Fresno State’s leading scorer and shot taker at 18.7 points on 14.8 attempts per game.
Regarding the point guard position specifically, the Bulldogs’ best short-term solution may be Blackwell, who has gotten hot as of late.
In Blackwell’s first seven games of the season, he totaled 3.7 points and 3.4 assists per game on 33.3 percent shooting from the field. In the past two games, he’s upped those figures to 19.0 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 48.3 percent from the field.
Grimes has been on fire lately as well and is coming off a game in which he stuffed the stat sheet against Long Beach State, putting up 15 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block.
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