At Mountain West Tournament, key for Bulldogs could be Olekaibe’s passing, not shooting

Fresno State’s Kevin Olekaibe, left, drives in past UNLV’s Katin Reinhardt in the first half of their game at the Save Mart Center in Fresno Wednesday, February 6, 2013. (CRAIG KOHLRUSS/THE FRESNO BEE)

Kevin Olekaibe gets a chance to get home for the Mountain West Conference Tournament, not only to Las Vegas, where he grew up, but on Tuesday the Fresno State Bulldogs practiced at Cimarron-Memorial High, where as a senior he led the state and was fifth in the nation in scoring.

Surprisingly, his teammates did not make him sing the alma mater or the school fight song, the words to which are painted in big letters on one wall of the gym.

Olekaibe did not miss much during practice, which should come as no surprise, given the familiar surroundings. The 6-foot-2 guard scored 1,065 points in that senior year, averaging 35.6 per game. He hit 50 percent of his shots including 37 percent at the 3-point line.

‘’I still wish I could play back in this gym,’’ he said. ‘’There’s a lot of memories in here.’’

But with the Bulldogs opening the Mountain West Conference Tournament on Wednesday against Colorado State, Olekaibe knows that he does not have to replicate that senior season for Fresno State to have success in its rapidly-evolving offense.

Down the stretch, the player movement and the ball movement have improved dramatically, the result victories at Nevada, against Air Force and at UNLV, and losses to Boise State and Colorado State in which they scored 63 and 67 points, above their average of 58.1 in conference play.

‘’It’s much-needed. We needed it a lot sooner. But it’s better late than never,’’ guard Tyler Johnson said. ‘’Coach (Byron) Jones is always the one coming at halftime reading how many assists we have to how many turnovers and he always tells us when we have more than 15 assists, we’re a very good team.’’

In that loss to the Rams, Olekaibe hit all five of his shots in the first half, all of them at the 3-point line. He hit his first shot in the second half, but then Colorado State put Jon Octeus on Olekaibe, trying to keep the ball out of his hands, and he did not score again.

The Bulldogs weren’t at a point then where they could deal well with that. But, in a similar situation in the regular-season finale at UNLV, just three games later, the offense went through Olekaibe and worked as smoothly as it has at any point this season. Fresno State had 16 assists on its 21 field goals, more than they had in any conference game and the highest percentage they have had in any game, and eight of them went through Olekaibe.

‘’The ball has to move. It can’t get stuck, so we have to move that basketball, we have to attack downhill. We have to make those guys guard us,’’ Coach Rodney Terry said.

‘’Our offense is not predicated on where K.O. has to go get X amount or a volume of shots for us this year. We don’t really need that now. He did get off to a great start up there at their place and they obviously made an adjustment in the second half and put a no-catch rule in for him and really tried to take him out of the offense, which was fine. Again, the thing he needed to adjust and we needed to adjust, if they’re going to do that then we’re going to play off of him and let other guys get their opportunities. It’s not like we have to force the ball to him.’’

It’s a formula that has worked, said Olekaibe, who has had a rough time shooting the basketball after missing much of the summer and parts of preseason practice coming back from an elbow injury.

‘’We just have to move the ball more. It’s not a thing where I have to get more shots. I also have to be a playmaker, too,’’ he said. ‘’I have to have the ball in my hands and make plays for other guys. If they’re guarding me, face front and tell Allen (Huddleston) to come drive off my side because there’s not going to be help in the gap. Play off of that and making them advantages for us will help us in this game.’’