Following a 99-56 blowout win over Bethesda, Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball enters conference play looking primed for success. The Titans are on a two-game win streak, taking four of their last six and finishing non-conference play with a 6-7 record that leaves them tied for the second-best winning percentage in the Big West.
“That’s a good way to end a year,” said head coach Dedrique Taylor following the Titans’ dominant win over Bethesda. “Some good momentum moving into conference play coming up on Thursday.”
In addition to momentum, Taylor’s team boasts a few other, more tangible strengths. The Titans have averaged 78.2 points per game (the second-highest scoring offense in the Big West so far), while also ranking second in field goal percentage (46.1 percent) and first in defensive rebounding (29.6 per game).
“Rebounding–I want to continue to focus on that,” Taylor said after Fullerton pulled down a team record 71 rebounds against Bethesda. “I think they’re starting to understand how important it is to dominate, and they’re going out and executing.”
A major part of the Titans’ success on the glass has been the play of freshman forward Jackson Rowe, whose 6.4 rebounds per game leave him tied for third–most of any player in the Big West. Rowe has been active on the offensive glass as well, snatching 2.3 offensive rebounds per game.
“I’m just trying to hustle and give my teammates another chance to score,” Rowe said after tallying his second consecutive double-double (10 points and a season-high high 16 rebounds) in Fullerton’s win over Bethesda.
Rowe is one of five freshmen to average more than 10 minutes per game for the Titans this season as they look for contributions from the younger members of their roster.
“I think our freshmen have really stepped up and shown that they know how to play,” Taylor said. “They’ve played hard and have been productive. I think we’ve gotten some performances from some guys that we can hopefully count on moving forward.”
Two other players the Titans may be looking to rely on moving into Big West play are its two top scorers, Tre’ Coggins and the returning Khalil Ahmad. Coggins has lit up the Titans’ non-conference opponents for 20.4 points per game this season, the best mark in the Big West.
After missing most of the season so far, while being academically ineligible, Ahmad has returned for the Titans’ last two games and picked up where he left off after a debut season that saw him named as the 2015-16 Big West Freshman of the Year. Ahmad is averaging 16.5 points per game since returning (which would rank second in the Big West), while shooting a scorching 53.8 percent on 6.5 three-point attempts per game.
“I think it’s been good for our ball club in terms of just the energy and giving our guys a shot in the arm,” Taylor said of Ahmad’s return to the lineup. “I’m tired of watching him beat us up in practice, and now we can watch him do it to the other team, and he’s gotten off to a pretty good start.”
All of the Titans’ good vibes will be for naught, however, if they follow up their sold non-conference play similarly to last season. The Titans went 8-7 against non-conference opponents in 2015-16 before winning just one of their 16 matchups against Big West opponents. To avoid suffering a similar fate to last year, the team has some issues they need to clean up.
“Obviously, free throw shooting, we have to continue to address, and get better and improve,” Taylor said. “Turnovers is an area that we can control and that we need to be better at.”
Fullerton’s free throw percentage (63.7 percent) and average turnovers (15.5) both stand as the second-worst marks in the Big West. Rowe also cited the need for himself to continue to improve his shot selection.
“I’m getting more comfortable as I play, but there’s still a lot of stuff I’ve got to work on,” Rowe said.
If Fullerton improves in enough of those areas, they may be able to outperform the sixth-place finish the Big West preseason poll had them pegged for.
“I think we have the potential to be a very, very good basketball team, but we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of things to shore up, and they’re all things that we can control,” Taylor said. “If we can do those things and emphasize those things, and start to execute at a different level, then I think this ball club can realize a lot of wins.”