Utah emerged from selection Sunday with a no. 3 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA Tournament bracket. Despite the no. 3 seed, it will be a tough road for Utah through the tournament if they are to make a run. Elite teams Virginia and Michigan State are the favorites to escape the region, but other good teams like Purdue, Iowa State and Seton Hall also lurk. Utah needs to take care of business first however, in order for any of those teams to come into the picture. First up is a meeting with the no. 14 seed Fresno State Bulldogs (25-9).
The last time Fresno State made the NCAA tournament was 2001 when legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian was on the sidelines for the Bulldogs. Now 15 years later, the Bulldogs are back in the dance, this time led by head coach Rodney Terry. Fresno State made their way into the tournament by way of winning the Mountain West Tournament claiming the automatic, and only berth for the Mountain West. Fresno State has a 2-5 all-time record in the NCAA tournament. This year will be the program's sixth appearance.
Fresno State is an athletic team that could prove tougher for the Utes to handle than the seed indicates. The Bulldogs are on fire right now, on a nine game winning streak and winners of ten of their past eleven. The Bulldogs are athletic and good in transition, a contrasting style to what Utah plays. Fresno State prides themselves on their defense, ranking 5th in the country in turnover margin (+4.3/game) and 16th in steals (8.2/game).
Marvelle Harris is the leader for the Bulldogs. The senior guard is an impressive player who can score in bunches and create for his teammates on offense and is a tough defender who creates turnovers. Harris averages 20.9 points and 4.4 assists per game and led the way down the stretch for the Bulldogs, being named the Mountain West Tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Down low, Karachi Edo has become a very good player for Fresno State. In the past eight games, the junior forward is averaging 11.7 points, 4.6 rebound and 1.9 blocks a game. Edo has been a critical piece in Fresno State's late season run and was named to the Mountain West all-tournament team along with Harris. Edo will need help down low against Poeltl and Kuzma. Edo stands only 6-6 putting him at a distinct size disadvantage. 6-9 forward Cullen Russo averages 8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and is a good defender who will surely help against Poeltl.
Looking at Fresno State's season, there are not many quality wins other than beating San Diego State twice. Fresno State did play no. 1 seed Oregon tough in Eugene however, losing by only five points (78-73) which is better than the Utes did in three tries against the Ducks. The other common opponent is Arizona, which Fresno State lost to convincingly (85-72) in Tucson.
Despite the 14 seed, Fresno State is actually a team that could give Utah some troubles. They are athletic, play well in transition and have a tenacious defense. Similar to Oregon in some respects, Fresno State has the athletes to make Utah play a faster paced game than Utah is comfortable playing. Unlike Oregon, Fresno State does not have the same caliber of players as the Ducks. Still, the Bulldogs are red hot and playing with confidence in a style the Utes often struggle against. If Fresno state's guards start hitting outside shots on Thursday, it could get interesting.
That being said, Utah has tournament experience, is battle tested after a tough Pac-12 slate, and is the better overall team. Jakob Poeltl will again be the best player on the floor and will be unmatched in the post by Fresno State. If Utah can control the pace of the game, limit turnovers and feed Poeltl down low, Utah should be able to advance to the second round.