Sophomore growth shows value of Fresno State’s TBC entry

(Photo: Jackson Moore, 247Sports)

The Fresno State Bulldogs did not participate in the NCAA tournament or the NIT this season, but they accepted an invitation to the lesser known The Basketball Classic. The Bulldogs showed Friday why the newly named tournament could be a wise investment for the ‘Dogs, and not because they lifted a trophy after beating Coastal Carolina.

The Basketball Classic gave Fresno State the opportunity to spend three more weeks developing and improving – as well as the rare chance to play four games in a knockout setting. And by the time they reached the championship round, the Bulldogs’ rotation was down to seven players, four of whom were sophomores who weren’t featured often this year.

If Fresno State’s season had simply ended after it fell to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament, Destiny WhitakerSeason two of the season would have ended with 1.9 points per game and not a single minute of playoff play recorded in Las Vegas either. But with Junior Ballard, Antoine Holland and Deon Stroud sidelined, Whitaker made a breakthrough.

The Romeoville, Illinois native was drafted by the Bulldogs in 2020 as a 3-star rookie best known for his 3-point shooting. After playing sparingly as a true freshman during the pandemic season, he received a bigger opportunity this season but was just 11 of 33 from 3-point range in the Bulldogs’ first 30 games.

But in The Basketball Classic, he found his confidence at the college level. Against Youngstown State in the quarterfinals to be confirmed, he scored a career-high 14 points with 5 of 9 marks from the field and 4 of 7 from 3-point range. Against Southern Utah in the semifinals, he started and went 3 of 4 from deep for nine runs. And in the championship, he was a perfect 6 of 6 from 3 points for another career-high 18 points.

Whitaker’s three-game streak ended averaging 13.7 points per game and 13 of 17 marks from 3-point range. He came out of rotation as recently as the Mountain West tournament to be named to the Basketball Classic All-Tournament Team within a month.

Fellow sophomore Leo Colimerio also played his statistically best basketball in The Basketball Classic. Colimerio spent most of the year starting but had just two double-digit performances of 11 points apiece in the regular season. But in the TBC single-elimination frame, he went for 17 points against Eastern Washington and had 13 points with 9 rebounds. Colimerio also earned TBC All-Tournament team honors.

Extra games have also been invaluable for the 7-foot-1 sophomore center Braxton Meah. He averaged just 7.5 minutes per game over the season and about two points per game. In TBC’s last three games, he averaged 15 minutes per game and averaged 8 points and 4.3 rebounds. He also made 11 of 13 shots (85%).

The Bulldogs’ rotation has shrunk to seven players in the TBC Championship and a fourth in sophomore – Donavan Yap – was also part of it. Yap played a season-high 26 minutes in the quarterfinals to be confirmed with 13 points. He also had five points in 21 minutes in the championship win.

These four sophomores have not only accelerated their development over the past month, but they have the opportunity even longer in a Bulldog uniform to see it pay off. All four have an extra year of eligibility, giving them three more seasons to try to top this year’s playoff series. If they stay through their extra year, all four will be honored at a senior night in 2025.

The two lesser-known post-season tournaments, the CBI and The Basketball Classic (formerly known as CIT), may not bring prestigious banners – but they do provide an opportunity to invest or reward a team with a post-season game. In 2014, the Bulldogs played six games and finished second in the CBI. The core of that team won the 2016 Mountain West Tournament Championship and launched Fresno State’s first NCAA Tournament bid in more than a decade.

Every player on Fresno State’s roster is eligible to return in 2022-23. The Bulldogs will now wait to see if Orlando Robinson’s NBA draft process translates into a move to the pros or a return for a senior season. They will also wait to see if any players enter the NCAA transfer portal. They’ve also reportedly already been looking for transfers to make an immediate impact. But if the ‘Dogs are to have playoff success in years to come, they can cite that TBC experience as one of the reasons.