Cal State Fullerton knows a tough task against Duke

No one in Cal State Fullerton was talking about legacies or recent rides this time last month.

The Titans back then were just a collection of transfers and disparate parts still trying to find their way. They had just been embarrassed on national television during a rudderless road loss to Hawaii, and their season was at a crossroads in mid-February. That’s when Dedrique Taylor asked his team to take a long look in the mirror.

Many were seniors and entering the last phase of their college careers. Now, he said, it was time to find out what mark they were planning to leave. Were they competitors, he asked, or hypocrites?

It was that question, asked by the Honolulu dressing room, that would help spark a sensational, unexpected run through the Big West tournament and earn Fullerton his fourth NCAA tournament bid and a Friday 4:10 p.m. date with the bringing in runner-up Duke and his legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski, whose legacy was college basketball’s biggest story this season.

That spotlight will burn as brightly as ever for Krzyzewski on Friday, when the most successful coach in college basketball history embarks on his final NCAA tournament run after 47 seasons, five national titles and nearly 1,200 victories. For Duke, that legacy has been particularly strong recently, with the Blue Devils losing two of their last four, including Krzyzewski’s last home game at Cameron Indoor.

While Duke and his fleet of star rookies are sure to feel that weight on Friday, there will be no such pressure on Fullerton, who enters the tournament with as much experience and confidence as any potential Cinderella in the bracket.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Taylor said. “The task will be difficult. I just want our group to focus on playing hard, competing and doing what got them to this point. trust me it’s good enough. The rest of the world probably doesn’t think so, and that’s great. No one ever said we could do anything anyway. Our own conference, they voted us seventh or eighth, so who cares?

Very few picked Fullerton for Friday’s promotion as Duke has three potential NBA lottery picks in his lineup, including potential No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero. But while the Blue Devils have a huge advantage in size and athleticism, the Titans are counting on their combined experience to lead them into an upset.

“Duke is a super, super talented group, but they’re inexperienced,” Fullerton guard Damari Milsted said. “They have a lot of good talent, but I think our maturity and balance and just our togetherness as a program and how long we’ve been together are some things that we can really capitalize on.”

Cal State Fullerton celebrates Big West Conference tournament title.

Cal State Fullerton celebrates the Big West Conference tournament title after beating Long Beach State Saturday in Henderson, Nev.

(Ronda Churchill/Associated Press)

It didn’t always seem that way. The Titans’ two top scorers, Milsted and EJ Anosike, were transfers from San Francisco and Tennessee respectively, so it took a while for Fullerton’s lineup to mesh.

The Titans opened the season 4-6, leaving Taylor wondering where his team was headed. They went 16-5 from there as Anosike led the Big West in scoring (16.5 points per game).

“I wasn’t sure,” Taylor said. “Hell, I didn’t even want to go to practice with that group the next day and I didn’t want anything to do with them. But we endured these things and we got through it. For me it just makes me smile to be able to say to this group that we have achieved something that I don’t think any other group can ever achieve.”

With just one more win, Fullerton would surely cement that legacy while playing another spoiler.

“A lot of people are doubting us right now,” warden Tray Maddox Jr. said. We know what’s at stake. We just go into the game and don’t think about whose last ride it is. We just go in and play basketball because at the end of the day it’s just basketball.” Cal State Fullerton knows a tough task against Duke

Andrew Schnitker

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