Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball used midseason trials to fuel its Big West Tournament run

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Cal State Fullerton men's basketball guard Khalil Ahmad prepares to take a shot at the basket.
(Katie Albertson / Daily Titan File Photo)

When the final buzzer in the Honda Center beckoned the Titans to the NCAA Tournament, players, coaches and fans rushed to midcourt to celebrate. The early-morning workouts, late-night practices following games and fiery film sessions all paid off once Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball secured its first Big West Tournament championship title in 10 years.

“Validation and accomplishment: that’s what this means to me. All the hard work these guys have put in, it’s validation for not only them but for our university, our administration, our staff and everybody associated with our program,” said Titans Head Coach Dedrique Taylor.

The first two games of the Titans postseason run were decided by 5 points combined. However, they defeated UC Irvine by 16 points in the championship game and allowed only 55 points, the third-lowest point total of an opponent this season.

At the start of the season only one vote was cast in the Big West media preseason poll for the Titans to win the conference. Fullerton guard Kyle Allman said they used it to fuel their desire to prove the doubters wrong.

“We just used it as motivation. We weren’t bitter about it,” Allman said.

Taylor thought his program would have to outwork all of its opponents if it wanted to exceed these expectations and make a run for the conference championship.

He looked to Isaac Salazar, the director of strength and conditioning, and Christian Salinas, the strength coach who worked with the program daily, to find out which team on campus works the hardest. They informed Taylor that the baseball team displays the greatest work ethic, which did not surprise him.

Taylor expressed his desires to reach that level of intensity his team and challenged them to fulfill his wish. After winning the conference and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, Taylor believes his team is close to surpassing the elite baseball program.  

“At this point, we’re at least even with them. Don’t tell Hooky (Titans Head Coach Rick Vanderhook) I said this, but we might be a little bit ahead of them,” Taylor said.

CSUF’s conference play was defined by extreme polarized inconsistency. The team followed its best start since the 1983-84 season (4-0) by dropping four of its next five games.

The only contest won over that losing streak was on the road against Hawaii, where the Titans needed 40 points from Allman to secure the three-point victory.

Taylor called the team’s effort and work ethic into question following the final loss of that stretch, a home game against UC Irvine in which the Titans gave up 11 offensive rebounds.

“We talked about the rebounding deficit and we talked about playing hard. To me, there’s a correlation there: if you play hard, you rebound. If you don’t, you get punked,” Taylor said.

Allman maintained a positive attitude and his belief in the team never wavered.

“There was never doubt. We just had to get on the same page and figure it all out,” Allman said.  

Following that loss, Fullerton defeated and outrebounded its opponents in three straight games.

Last season, CSUF was eliminated from the tournament after UC Davis tipped in a bucket as the buzzer sounded in overtime. The Titans marked their calendars every time they faced the Aggies this season because the bitter taste lingered from that devastating defeat.

Fullerton beat Davis in all three meetings this year, including in the semifinal game of the Big West Tournament.

“It means a lot, especially how we lost to them in the tournament last year. It’s revenge” guard Khalil Ahmad told Cal State Fullerton Sports Media following the Feb. 10 win at Davis.

CSUF was coming off of its best game in conference play heading into its final game of the regular season: a 26-point shellacking of Cal State Northridge, where the Titans shot 57.1 percent from the floor, dished out 20 assists and grabbed 24 more rebounds than the Matadors.

Up to that point, the Titans held a 15-4 record in contests where they finished with 10 or more assists.

This explains why Taylor bemoaned his ball club after collecting only eight assists in its regular season finale against Hawaii.

“Cal State Fullerton, back to our old selves, we continue to just take out a gun and blow our own foot off. You can’t play as selfish as we’ve played tonight … and expect to have a chance to win,” Taylor said.

Despite their less-than-desirable end to the season, Taylor didn’t give up hope. He preached about his faith in the Titans, and said they can compete with anyone if they believe in winning and sacrifice for the final product.

Taylor even suggested he’d tattoo the word selfless on his forehead if it got his players to consistently share the ball, but found out it was unnecessary.

Although Taylor kept his forehead ink free, the team recorded 10 or more assists in all three postseason victories, bringing its overall record to 18-4.

To go with the tournament championship, Allman won Big West Tournament Most Valuable Player and was named to the All-Tournament team along with Ahmad and forward Jackson Rowe.

Two seasons ago, the Titans finished conference play with a 3-13 record. Today, they’re conference champions.

“I feel like our culture has changed. There’s almost not any minute where you can go in the gym and see nobody in there. We’re always in there trying to get better because we’re always hungry,” Ahmad said.

Now CSUF will head to the NCAA Tournament where it will take on Purdue University in Detroit. The Titans’ received a 1.7 percent chance to defeat the Boilermakers according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Allman believes the team’s confidence remains steady regardless of who its opponent is.

“We’re going to come and play just how we played everybody else,” Allman said.

Their quest for success may not have been ideal, but at the end of the day, the Titans only care about one thing.

“I’m a Big West conference champion and that’s all that matters in the long run,” Allman said.

Kathryne Padilla contributed to this report.

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