At this time last year, Joe Callero was the visitor at Mott Gym, and his Seattle University men’s basketball team left San Luis Obispo with a last-second victory over Cal Poly.
Tonight, however, Callero is on the Mustangs bench, hoping to defend his new home floor against his old team, one with a roster filled with the players he recruited.
In just its second year transitioning from Division II, the new-look Seattle team also has a fresh young coaching staff, a new marquee player and wins over Utah and Fresno State to its credit.
The Redhawks may wonder if Callero regrets leaving such a program on the rise — albeit an independent one — for the security of playing in the Big West Conference and could look to this game as a chance to make a statement.
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Not so for Callero.
Seattle is not eligible for the NCAA Tournament for another three years and does not belong to an automatic-bid conference. If Callero can get Cal Poly to the dance with the berth given to the Big West Tournament champion before the next three postseasons pass, he still wins in his mind, even if he loses tonight.
Still, winless through his first five games as the Mustangs’ head coach, losing is not his plan.
“The emotion I have is that we need to establish our number one goal, and that is the winning tradition in Mott Gym,” Callero said. “I can get over the 0-5 start, but we have 12 home games in Mott Gym, and we have to establish a home-court advantage.”
It could be a tough home opener for Callero and Cal Poly.
With two of its losses against fringe top-25 teams, Seattle is 5-3 under former Washington assistant Cameron Dollar, who helped lead UCLA to the national championship as a player in 1997 and has brought in an up-tempo style.
The Redhawks are averaging 78.3 points per game. Compare that to Cal Poly’s 65.4 points per game and Callero’s desire to slow the game with a half-court offense and a matchup zone defense, and this contest will seemingly boil down to a battle of wills. Will it be quick or methodical?
Seattle certainly has a huge weapon on its side.
Charles Garcia, a 6-foot-10 forward who transferred to Seattle after being denied admittance to Washington, is scoring 26.6 points per game, a number that would rank him fourth in the nation, and is grabbing 9.4 rebounds per game.
Citing his ability to handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter, Callero likened Garcia to Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder star who started his pro career in Seattle with the Super Sonics.
Matching up with taller players has been a problem for the Mustangs this season. Not counting two 6-10 freshmen Callero is hoping to redshirt, Cal Poly is thin along the front line.
Junior college transfer Will Donahue leads the team with 8.2 rebounds per game and is second in scoring with 10.4 points. After Donahue, Cal Poly is getting its next biggest production in the paint from 6-4 forward Jordan Lewis, who’s scoring 7.8 points per game.
But Cal Poly has shown improvement from game to game.
Since a 73-62 loss at San Francisco in the season opener, the Mustangs have incrementally increased their shooting percentage from 35.8 against the Dons to 43.1 in their most recent loss at Arkansas-Little Rock.
Cal Poly has also improved its assist-to-turnover ratio each game along the way.
“Obviously, nobody likes to lose games, but if we were losing by 30 and not making any improvement, I think there would be a lot more concern from the players and coaches,” Callero said.
“There’s not a pessimistic attitude to the season yet. We knew what we were getting into.”