Expect several clashing storylines when the Cuesta College basketball teams host Allan Hancock College tonight.
It’s San Luis Obispo against Santa Maria, athleticism versus finesse and, in the men’s matchup in particular, former students against a mentor.
Emotions are always expected to run high in this rivalry — which begins with the men’s game at 5 p.m. at Cuesta and the women’s game following at 7 p.m. — but perhaps more important this time around is the chance to stay in contention for the Western State Conference North Division crown.
The Cougars’ men (15-9, 2-1 WSCN) will host the Bulldogs (14-7, 2-1 WSCN) before traveling to Ventura (18-5, 2-1 WSCN) on Saturday, when Hancock will host unbeaten conference front-runner Los Angeles Pierce (14-6, 3-0 WSCN).
In the crucial stretch, whoever can go into the weekend unscathed will stay on pace for the title. Tonight’s loser is in danger of being saddled with a devastating trio of conference losses before the week is out.
“Whoever loses that game has two losses with one difficult game remaining in the first round” of WSCN play, Cuesta head coach Rusty Blair said. “Three losses in the first round, and you’re probably not competing for a league championship anymore. You’re probably struggling to get a playoff spot.”
Since the rest of the conference teams range from Santa Barbara and south, Hancock is closest geographically, and the matchup has the same feel, Blair said, as the nearby Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara rivalry that has been known for colorful antics over the years.
It’s also a clash in playing styles.
With a roster populated mainly with international players, the Cougars rely on skill and guile to get things done.
Leading scorer Plamen Hristov of Bulgaria (16.2 points per game) is one of the leading 3-point shooters in the conference, but the 6-foot-4 forward also has to produce on the boards for Cuesta, ranking third in the WSCN with 8.1 rebounds per game.
The Cougars don’t have an established inside presence, something Blair said comes from the more finesse-oriented game played in his recruiting base overseas, but 6-4 guard Oscar Pedroso of Portugal excels at drawing fouls by driving inside and taking charges on the defensive end.
Pedroso averages 11.2 points. He ranks 10th in the state with 111 free-throw attempts and converts on 76.6 percent.
Hancock has only one international player on the roster and plays a more athletic game, but the Bulldogs aren’t exactly local.
Leading scorer Demetrius Thomas (19.8 points per game) went to high school in Connecticut. The 6-8 guard also averages 8.6 rebounds.
Six-foot-9 center Josh Varney, from Vermont, is the second-leading rebounder in the conference with 9.8 per game and averages 13.9 points.
And Khufu Najee, a 6-4 transfer guard from San Jose State, is averaging 14.8 points and is shooting better than 55 percent from the field. In three conference games, Najee is averaging 19.6 points.
While both teams appear to have shortened their rotations for conference play, Cuesta has not done so willingly. The Cougars have already lost four players to season-ending injuries, including former starting shooting guard Paul Candiff, who was lost to an ACL tear, Blair said.
Several others are nursing nagging injuries, but that won’t change the stakes for tonight’s big game, which also features the return of sixth-year Hancock head coach Ralph Gorton, who spent eight years as Blair’s assistant at Cuesta, and former Cougars standout Vince Conde, who’s coaching stints include stops as an assistant under Blair and high school varsity coach at Templeton and Paso Robles.
“It’s always a difficult situation,” Blair said. “I have two former assistant coaches I have to go against. It’s a game where they feel they want to beat the mentor.”