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Fresno State is churning out another good season in the background

The Bulldogs and their star have been overlooked. Maybe that’s wrong.

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at Fresno State Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Like many people, Deshon Taylor’s favorite player is Stephen Curry.

And like many people, it’s because Curry went from underrated to undeniably one of the best basketball players in the world. That’s where the similarities between Taylor and casual basketball fan stop because unlike many people, the Fresno State junior guard has lived out his own little version of Curry’s story as a Div. basketball player.

“He’s always been one of those guys that plays with a chip on his shoulder,” said Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry.

Lightly recruited out of John W. North High School in Riverside, Calif., Taylor signed halfway across the country with UMKC in 2014. At the time, the Roos were in just their second year in the WAC, and hadn’t posted a winning conference record — in any conference — in eight seasons.

Taylor played a big role right away on a UMKC team that would go 8-6 in the WAC. He started ten games and ended the season with back-to-back 16-point outings in the league tournament. He looked like a building block, but took a step up in competition following the season, transferring closer to home to Fresno State.

Taylor exploded in 2016-17. He emerged from his redshirt year as an aggressive guard that could score at all three levels (12.5 PPG, 40.3 3P%, 5.0 FTA), and landed on the all-league third team.

If he was once overlooked, he shouldn’t be anymore.

He’s taken another leap this season, averaging 20.0 points per game through Fresno State’s first ten games. The number is good for second in the Mountain West, and includes a 31-point effort in a win over Montana State on Nov. 26. His coach said he’s doing more than just putting the ball in the basket.

“We know he’s a guy that’s a capable scorer, gets to the foul line and makes his foul shot as well,” Terry said. “But he’s a guy that can disrupt the game defensively for us too, in terms of being a two-way player.”

If Taylor has shaken the overlooked label, his team may still be trying to do the same.

Fresno State had one of its best seasons in program history two years ago, going 25-10 and scooping up the Mountain West’s lone NCAA Tournament bid. And despite losing the school’s all-time leading scorer in Marvelle Harris, the Bulldogs put together a 20-win season a year ago and made the NIT.

With a number of impact returnees — including Taylor, Jaron Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor — some were surprised to see the media predict the Bulldogs to finish just fourth in a seemingly in-flux Mountain West.

That didn’t bother the seventh-year Fresno State head coach.

Terry said, “They asked me, ‘Are you always upset by the lack of respect that your program gets? You guys are picked fourth and probably could have been picked higher, and things of that nature,’ and I said, ‘No.’

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you’re picked first – obviously, it’s a compliment and exposure for your program. But at the end of the day you have to go play the games and you have to try to develop your team and try to be playing your best basketball at the right time.”

The Bulldogs, through ten games, are indeed playing good basketball.

At 8-2, they’re riding a six-game winning streak. It’s the first time Fresno State has won that many games in a row in non-conference play since 2006-07, and it’s been fueled by an aggressive offense.

The Bulldogs are generating free throw attempts at the 23rd best rate in the country, and Deshon Taylor has gotten to the line at least 10 times in each of the past six games. That sort of sustainable offense will be important as Fresno State is expected to be without its second-leading scorer for an extended period as Hopkins (12.4 PPG), a senior guard, is out indefinitely with a back injury.

That shortens a rotation that was already thin with Hopkins healthy. But three of those players — senior center Terrell Carter, senior guard Jahmel Taylor and junior forward Sam Bittner — were a part of that NCAA Tournament two seasons ago.

Terry said that he can feel the ripple effect of that experience on the current team.

“Guys can trust the process,” he said. “They can trust what we’re asking them to do from a defensive standpoint and offensive standpoint. It all works. Give it a chance, believe in it and you can experience a high-level of success.”

And there has been a high-level of success overall for Terry in the San Joaquin Valley. Despite limited resources, Terry has kept Fresno State more than competitive over the past seven seasons.

The Fresno Bee profiled his body of work back in November.

Terry has climbed to third on the all-time Fresno State victories list behind only Boyd Grant and Ed Gregory, and recruited and developed the all-time leading scorer in school history in Marvelle Harris. In 2016 the Bulldogs won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 and after reaching the NIT last season are one of only five programs from Group of Five conferences with back-to-back trips to either the NCAA or NIT.

He has pulled the most from his players on and off the court – his players have graduated and in his tenure Fresno State basketball has posted three of the top APR scores in program history including a record 980 in 2012-13.

Why then, are the Bulldogs not fixed more prominently in the casual basketball fan’s mind? And why does Terry’s name never seem to get buzzed about when the coaching carousel starts to twirl?

Part of it may be that Fresno State hasn’t had that eyeballing-grabbing moment in March.

“We’re still trying to strive like everybody,” he said. “That will be the next step for us. Compete for a conference championship and try to get to postseason and try to advance in postseason play.”

Is the year that happens? The Bulldogs have stacked up wins against a weak-to-this-point schedule, but do have a shining opportunity when they host Oregon at the Save Mart Center on Dec. 16.

Fresno State hasn’t finished worse than 10-8 in Mountain West play over the past three seasons. This team has the talent — particularly with a quick recovery by Hopkins — to continue the winning ways, even with teams presumably in their stratosphere (UNLV, San Diego State) playing well in the early going.

If this is the season they ultimately get that marquee win under the brightest lights, it’ll be impossible to be overlooked anymore.