Steve Cleveland feels as if he's finally back to being a full-time coach at Fresno State, no longer burdened by the stress of NCAA violations.
The unbeaten Bulldogs served a self-imposed ban from postseason play last season. Now they want to show they can bounce back, preferably with a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"Basketball can be the primary focus and we can get back to coaching," Cleveland said, referring to the violations that rocked not only the university but also the city of Fresno. "That cloud's been taken away. We're a long way away, but we're headed in the right direction."
Fresno State (5-0) is picked to finish third in the Western Athletic Conference and already has several impressive wins, including a 20-point rout of San Francisco - a team with three Big East transfers that could challenge Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.
Cleveland, who directed an impressive turnaround at BYU before returning home to take over Fresno State, led his new team to 15 wins last season. That success has the Bulldogs thinking big now.
"We just wanted to come out and make a statement that you've got to watch out for Fresno State this year," said senior Quinton Hosley, one of four starters averaging at least 11.8 points. "We like to play defense and we feel we can play with anybody in the country. As far as cracking the Top 25, that would be a blessing. We'll keep chugging away."
Cleveland went 138-108 and developed an impeccable reputation in eight seasons at BYU. When hired at Fresno State, he pledged to restore integrity to the program.
In April, the men's basketball team was placed on four years' probation by the NCAA for recruiting infractions by former coach Ray Lopes, who resigned in March 2005, and other members of his staff. They made hundreds of phone calls to recruits, far exceeding the number allowed, according to the NCAA. The school banned itself from postseason play in 2005-06.
Jerry Tarkanian, Fresno State's coach before Lopes, spent several years dodging various scandals that undermined public confidence in the program. In fact, the Bulldogs' entire athletic department had been in turmoil since athletic director Scott Johnson resigned last year just before women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein was fired March 2, 2005.
"The last 12 to 14 months have been a very challenging time for me personally and for us as a program," Cleveland said. "I think the hardest thing for me is the dynamics of this were so unique. I've never been involved in compliance issues."
" And I've come back home," he added. "I think the responsibility at times has been overwhelming. I feel a real sense of needing to do this well and be successful. I do believe we're on track to make this happen. I probably feel as vulnerable right now than I ever have. I don't want to do anything to harm anything in my hometown."
There certainly is optimism on campus again.
Transfer Dominic McGuire, who sat out last year after two difficult seasons at California, has already been a key addition. He used the time he had not playing to work on his 3-point shooting and other aspects of his game.
Cleveland and the coaching staff give the players the green light to shoot from long range as long as they have good looks. The Bulldogs hit 12 threes against USF.
"They have a lot of confidence in us," McGuire said. "This is a very unselfish team. I think we'll shock a lot of people this year."
Cleveland does not stifle his players, and it's been fun for him to see them regaining confidence.
"The fact they're actually playing for something just gives them a different energy and a hope," he said. "There's a hope that things are going to be better and we're going forward."