Brian Bennett’s baptism into the Blue-Green rivalry came sitting in front of the computer in his parents’ Illinois home last year.
Still a high school senior, the 6-foot-10 center stayed up late to watch the men’s basketball program that had just signed him to a letter of intent.
It was as exciting as any one-point game decided by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer could be, but the Internet stream of Cal Poly’s 58-57 loss to UC Santa Barbara was nothing compared to the three-dimensional view of the campus-wide rivalry with the Gauchos.
“I was introduced to it then,” Bennett said, “but then when I got here, everyone talked about it, and all the guys talk about it and how crazy it gets and fans get ridiculous. It was just awesome to hear about, and it makes you excited to be a part of it.”
Tasked with guarding dominant UC Santa Barbara center Alan Williams when the two teams meet in Santa Barbara at 4 p.m. Saturday, Bennett figures to be a big part of the rivalry as Cal Poly (7-8, 3-2 Big West Conference) looks to stop a road losing streak before it completely derails a solid start to conference play.
Fellow Mustangs freshman Reese Morgan is scheduled to make his first career start in place of Kyle Odister, and in a game televised by Fox Sports Prime Ticket, Cal Poly will try to get its first win in Santa Barbara since 2007, a span that goes back two years before the start of the Joe Callero era.
The Mustangs head coach is pining for a win after watching his team blow a 12-point first-half lead to lose on a heartbreaking buzzer beater at UC Davis on Jan. 10 and follow that up with a 77-55 whipping at the hands of Pacific two nights later — all after starting 3-0 in Big West play, including the only conference defeat of first-place Long Beach State (9-8 5-1 Big West).
Cal Poly has been idle since, time necessary to refocus Callero said.
“There’s got to be a sense of urgency,” Callero said. “We left our heart in the wrong spot. We’ve got to go pick our heart back up and get back to fundamental basketball.
“The week that we had off preparing for this was really good because we got the time both physically and emotional to repair.”
With the graduation of several key players from last season’s conference tournament finalists, the Gauchos (6-10, 2-3 Big West) have gotten off to a slow start.
In the past, UC Santa Barbara relied on its offense to come from the wing in the form of forward James Nunnally and former Big West Player of the Year and All-America guard Orlando Johnson, a second-round NBA Draft pick now playing with the Indiana Pacers.
UC Santa Barbara also lost the inside presence of Jaime Serna and 7-footer Greg Somogyi. Williams is now the focal point.
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound sophomore is third in the Big West with 18.1 points per game and first in blocks (2.4 per game) and rebounds (10.3 per game), including a conference-leading 4.1 offensive rebounds per game.
Williams had 17 points in the first half en route to 28 points and 11 rebounds for the game in a 66-59 victory over UC Davis on Saturday.
“They lost their top two scorers,” Cal Poly senior guard Dylan Royer said, “and I feel like to a normal spectator, they lost all their firepower. They shouldn’t be as good this year, but they have so much talent, we’re not going to take them any lighter than we did last year. We have to take them with the same intensity as we did last year or we’re going to lose.”
Recent history is not on the Mustangs’ side. They’ve lost six straight in the Thunderdome, the last win coming 71-61 by a Kevin Bromley-guided Cal Poly program in a year the Mustangs made it all the way to the Big West Tournament final.
Though a rivalry in tradition, Bromley has been an assistant on the Gauchos’ bench since his firing in 2009, and Cal Poly has beaten UC Santa Barbara just once in the past 11 meetings.
The Gauchos also lead both the overall (61-31) and Division I (27-10) series against the Mustangs.
Cal Poly needs a victory. Callero imagines the regular-season conference champion might suffer up to four losses. If the Mustangs want to remain a contender for that title, they’ll have to turn their road fortunes around.
“Home court advantage,” Callero said. “Anybody that can snap that is really getting that prized possession.
“We’re not going to be a top-half team unless we can go on the road and poach a few.”