Ever since his introductory news conference in 2009, Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero has been glorifying the home-court advantage provided by Mott Gym.
Really? The outgoing regime had just wrapped up a season where the program was winless at home.
But what initially sounded like simple lip service to an aging facility losing its luster with fans was repeated like lessons on a chalkboard.
Almost four years later, it seems Callero has turned hogwash into honest truth.
“Maybe I should say we want to be undefeated the whole year and we want to win a national championship,” he quipped.
Cal Poly’s success at Mott, however, is no punchline these days. Hosting Cal State Fullerton tonight at 7 in the second half of a doubleheader with the women’s team, the Mustangs are on the precipice of running through the Big West Conference season undefeated at home.
Cal Poly is 12-1 overall at home this season, and the Mustangs (16-12, 11-6 Big West) have won 13 straight conference home games dating back to the end of last season.
Senior guard Drake U’u said Thursday’s 17-point second-half comeback in a 68-62 victory over visiting UC Riverside would not have happened if not for a raucous crowd.
“Every year we’ve played here, we’ve progressively gotten better at home,” said U’u, a Sacramento product who transferred from Hartford when Callero took over in 2009. “We’ve gotten a lot of community support, which is huge, and that comes with winning games. You don’t get fans coming to the game unless you’re winning, same with students. I think this year has been our best yet as far as establishing that home-court advantage.”
The home winning streak is not all that’s at stake in the regular-season finale against the Titans (14-16, 6-11 Big West).
With a victory, Cal Poly can secure no worse than the third seed for the Big West Tournament, which begins Thursday at the Honda Center in Anaheim. A win, coupled with a Pacific loss to first-place Long Beach State, would tie the Mustangs and Tigers for second place. Cal Poly would get the No. 2 seed based on a tiebreaking home victory over the 49ers in early January.
The stakes are also great for the Mustangs women, who play Long Beach State (15-14, 8-9 Big West) at 4 p.m.
Cal Poly (19-9, 13-4 Big West) has already clinched a top-two finish and will receive byes to Friday’s semifinal round of the conference tournament at Honda Center.
A victory over the 49ers would also give the Mustangs the top seed and at least a share of their third consecutive Big West regular-season championship.
The women, 12-3 overall in Mott Gym, could also complete an undefeated conference run at home.
“It’s just the first step of where a program’s got to go,” Callero said. “You’ve got to be good at home. Whatever the sport, you have to be good at home and feel comfortable at home. And then you hope to be better and be warriors in order to win on the road and eventually to win playoffs.”
It’s only been 2 1⁄2 weeks since the Cal Poly men last played Cal State Fullerton, a 77-60 Titans win Feb. 20.
Chris Eversley, Cal Poly’s leading scorer and rebounder, missed that game with an ankle injury, and Cal State Fullerton jumped out to a 13-2 lead in the first six minutes and led by double digits the rest of the way.
No Cal Poly starter scored in double figures. Senior guard Chris O’Brien came off the bench to score a team-high 13, and Kyle Odister added 11.
“Last game,” said O’Brien, an Irvine product who transferred from San Francisco when Callero took over, “they really exploited us, and we were caught off guard. We were just kind of on our heels the whole time.”
Said U’u: “They kind of came out and punched us right away, and so that’s something that we’ve got to do early is establish aggressiveness. Combating their pressure with pressure, that’s something we didn’t do last time.”
Eversley is back and averaging 20 points since his return to the lineup, and this time, Cal State Fullerton could be without one of its top players.
Averaging 17.9 points per game to rank third in the Big West Conference, senior guard D.J. Seeley missed Thursday’s 66-50 loss at UC Santa Barbara with a foot sprain. He scored 21 points in the Titans’ blowout victory over Cal Poly last month.
Whether Seeley plays or not, the Mustangs are still worried about senior point guard Kwame Vaughn, who ranks second in the conference with 18.2 points per game and scored a game-high 23 in the previous matchup with Cal Poly, and the rest of the Titans.
Cal State Fullerton averages 77.5 points per game as a team to rank 16th nationally in scoring.
“They have some of the best one-on-one players,” Callero said. “They really space you out and isolate you, and when the shot clock’s going down and it’s a one-on-one situation, they’re as good as anybody that we’ve played all year.”