In each of his three seasons as Cal Poly head mens basketball coach, Joe Callero has improved on an aspect of the program.
In 2009, he took a team projected to finish last in the Big West Conference back to the leagues postseason tournament after a one-year absence under the former regime, overachieving with a patchwork roster.
In 2010, the Mustangs finished second in the Big West, and despite being upset in the first round of the conference tournament by No. 7 seed UC Riverside, the program was on an upward swing.
This season, Cal Poly (17-11) had one of the best nonconference records in its history at the Division I level before a midseason slump led to a fourth-place conference finish.
But whether or not Callero can honestly say this year has been an improvement depends on how the Mustangs compete at this years Big West Tournament, where once again theyll begin at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Thursday against the No. 5 Highlanders (14-16) a team that mirrors Cal Poly in one respect.
Weve got to play really well, Callero said. If you lose a game in overtime, does that mean it wasnt upward mobility? For me on a personal level, its the consistency of, Oh youre right there, a play here and a play there.
Winning is absolutely the goal and the dream, but its not the measuring stick. How we play is the reward.
The Mustangs have failed to beat UC Riverside in three Big West Tournament matchups, losing in 2004 and 2008, but the most relevant loss was the 70-66 overtime defeat last season.
The teams split during the regular season this year with the Highlanders taking a 60-53 win in Riverside on Jan. 14 and Cal Poly eking out a 54-53 victory at Mott Gym on Feb. 9.
Regardless of result, the Mustangs shot poorly and hoisted a ton of shots from 3-point range in each of those past three games.
Cal Poly was 4 of 20 from long range in victory over the Highlanders and just 5 of 20 in the loss this season. The Mustangs were 13 of 13 on 3-pointers in the 2011 Big West Tournament loss.
Former Morro Bay High star Dylan Royer a starter since the 10th game of this season was 4 of 5 on 3s with 14 points in the tournament loss, but it served as his introduction from near obscurity.
And heres where the teams are similar.
They do a really good job of eliminating direct penetration and do a really good job of helping out their teammates and sag in the key, said Mustangs senior forward David Hanson, a second-team Big West Conference honoree this week. Teams think they have a lot of open 3s. And I think in ways they kind of do, but in a way its fools gold.
Though through different means, its a result Cal Poly also tries to attain using Calleros matchup zone defense.
The key to Cal Polys success also lies with its defense. That effort starts with limiting all-conference first-teamer Phil Martin of the Highlanders, the Big Wests second-leading scorer at 17.6 points per game.
The Mustangs have held Martin to 12 and 13 points in two of the past three games. His 22-point effort came in the only game Cal Poly has won during the span in the rivalry.
Phil Martins a great player. He can score a bunch of points in any given night, said Mustangs senior center Will Taylor, the teams second-leading scorer at 11.1 points per game. Hes a great player, and they have great guards and their bigs are solid.
Taylor, second in the conference at 53.7 percent on field goals, did not make the trip to Anaheim while he redshirted last season. His last action was in the 2010 tournament, when he started in a victory over UC Irvine and had his finest game of that season in a quarterfinal loss to Long Beach State.
Taylors mindset mimics that of six seniors wholl be making their final appearances sometime soon.
This is my last time around, Taylor said. If I cant use everything in my tank right now, then Im never going to use it again. Thats my mindset going into it. I have to approach each game like that because any game can be my last.
Hanson will leave in the top 10 on Cal Polys scoring and rebounding list.
Averaging a team-leading 12.1 points per game this season, the three-year starter is eighth in career scoring with 1,236 points and eighth in rebounds with 611.
Like Callero, Hanson, too, has seen the program progress in each season hes been in San Luis Obispo.
Hes hoping to measure this seasons improvement in further advancement in the tournament bracket.
Our net goal is we gotta win two and get to that championship game, Hanson said. Its single elimination. Once you lose, youre out. Our ultimate goal is to make it to the (NCAA) Tournament, but I think for the program to continue to go up is to exceed what weve done since Ive been here, and thats to win two games.