Look Out for the Bulldogs: Fresno State Hoops on the Rise

Mark E. SmithCorrespondent INovember 11, 2009

23 Nov 2001:  Center Melvin Ely #33 of the Fresno State Bulldogs jumps for the ball against forward Adam Ballinger #55 of the Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA game at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York.  Fresno State defeated Michigan State 63-58.Mandatory Credit:  Al Bello/Getty Images
Al Bello/Getty Images

College basketball season starts in just a few days. Yeah, it's not only played in March and April, for all of you who just tune into the greatest event in the world of sports.

The Fresno State Bulldogs will get things started at home on Friday night against the Gators of San Francisco State.

Last year the Bulldogs were a very young team. They returned only two experienced players in Ned Golubovic and Dwight O'Neil. They brought in a nice class last year, with transfer Sylvester Seay and newcomer Paul George leading the way.

They played like a team that was thrown together with what they had available. With the team's only senior, O'Neil, serving a suspension and later coming back to play off the bench, the team had guys all looking for a leader. Seay sometimes was the guy. Other nights, Michael Ladd looked like he might be the guy.

The most consistent player was the freshman George. Not only was he capable of highlight dunks, but he was also the team's most accurate three-point shooter. 

This year, Steve Cleveland brings back the core of his squad—and for the first time, he has a full allotment of scholarships. His first four years in Fresno he's been handcuffed because of mistakes (politely putting it) made by his predecessors.

This offseason he was able to bring in a talented recruiting class. Greg Smith, a freshman from Fresno, will be a much-needed upgrade in the interior. This class also features Jerry Brown from the Bay Area and late addition Steven Schepps, a transfer point guard who brings needed experience and backcourt leadership.

Altogether, this year's squad returns six guys from last year and six newcomers.

Cleveland put together a favorable schedule this year, with only two opponents having played in the NCAA tourney last season. This should allow for the team to come together, play competitive early games, and become a confident squad with a chance to steal a WAC title.

Okay, stealing a WAC title may be a stretch for a team that barely won three conference games last year. But this team has the experience to win those close games like the two they lost to Utah State last year. They also have a legitimate star in Paul George. If you don't know who he is, check his name on YouTube.

I predict them to come in third in the WAC, behind Utah State and Nevada (not necessarily in that order). Depending on how the field shapes up and how many non-conference wins the Bulldogs can rack up, they may be able to pick up an at-large NCAA invite.

It would be only the fifth time in team history and a major accomplishment for a team that was nearly left for dead after the scandalous years of Jerry Tarkanian and Ray Lopes.

Coach Cleveland has so far done a great job of bringing back respect to the program. Now for the first time since Melvin Ely left the Bulldogs, there is reason to be excited about Fresno State hoops.