While the rest of the Big West Conference started playing basketball on Saturday, both the Cal Poly men’s and women’s teams had the night free to strategize.
For the women, who have the conference’s best overall nonconference record at 7-4, the focus is on trying to figure out how to stay on top and follow up last season’s breakthrough into the finals of the Big West Tournament.
For the men, who enter conference play on the other end of the standings spectrum, it’s how they can buck a disquieting trend of first-half flops. They also need to get back sophomore center Will Donahue, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, after he was forced to sit out Thursday’s 70-63 loss at Cal State Bakersfield.
“We have a tendency to become more aggressive as we find out we’re behind,” first-year Cal Poly men’s head coach Joe Callero said. “And that’s an unhealthy trait, but it’s a reality for us right now.”
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The conference season starts Monday for the Mustangs. The men travel to UC Irvine while the women host the Anteaters at 7 p.m. at Mott Gym.
Callero said he hopes to have Donahue (11.8 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game) available to play against UC Irvine (8-8).
A recent change in the 6-foot-8 center’s academic standing had to be cleared by the university, the Big West and the NCAA. As of Thursday, Donahue was OK’d by Cal Poly and the conference, but because of holiday office closures, the NCAA could not give its approval in time, the coach said.
Callero said he is expecting Donahue to be given clearance on Monday prior to the game. Once he receives that clearance, Donahue will be eligible to play for the rest of the season.
The Mustangs (3-8) would be in trouble without Donahue, the team’s only active player taller than 6-7. He had started every game prior to missing the loss to the Roadrunners and was averaging more than 30 minutes a game.
But even with the junior college transfer giving Cal Poly solid contributions in the paint, the Mustangs come into Big West play with the worst nonconference record. Cal State Northridge (4-7) and UC Davis (4-8) are the only other two conference teams not at least within a game of .500.
Pacific (7-5), which plays at Cal Poly on Friday, is the only Big West men’s team with a winning record, but Long Beach State (6-7) — with televised losses to Kentucky, Texas, Duke, West Virginia and Clemson and a win over UCLA — is the projected front-runner.
“The talent that they’ve added there is very, very competitive at the mid-major level right now,” Callero said. “I think it’s going to raise the bar for everybody. They are physically and athletically in the number one spot.”
Cal Poly was picked to finish last in the preseason media poll after the Mustangs went winless at home in the Big West last season and was the only one out of nine conference teams to miss the Big West Tournament because of it.
The two main goals for Callero this season are to finish with a winning record at home and to get out of the conference cellar. Both are still attainable.
“We have to steal a couple of road victories and pull out a couple,” Callero said. “Can we establish a winning record on our home court? We’re 2-1 at Mott. If we have a winning record at Mott and steal some, I think that elevates us. Who finishes last? I don’t know, but that should put us in the competitive level of playoff spot.”
Not if Cal Poly continues to play poorly at the start of games.
The Mustangs have been outscored by a total of 97 points in the first half by all of their opponents combined this season. That translates to an average halftime deficit of 8.8 points per game.
Both of Cal Poly’s home wins came after erasing double-digit first-half deficits, but the team has not been near as fortunate on the road.
The most frustrating output for Callero was the loss at Cal State Bakersfield, where the Mustangs shot just 25.7 percent from the field before the break and were 0 for 11 on 3-pointers during that span.
Knowing that the problem stems from players settling for long-range shots instead of working hard for better looks, Callero has taken a page from the vintage San Francisco 49ers playbooks: Running the game’s first string of sets and plays from a predetermined script.
Some coaches might employ similar tactics to test out a defense and see how an opponent will react to a variety of situations. Cal Poly is doing it partly to get players to focus on taking shots only from a couple specific spots on the floor.
The script also takes some of the pressure off starting point guard Kyle Odister, a true freshman, and sophomore backup Justin Brown — two players still adjusting to leading an offense at the college level.
“We’ve taken some of the thinking out of their hands and simplified their leadership role,” Callero said. “I’ve played quarterback from the sideline and called more plays than I have in probably the past six years.
“As your program develops, you have fewer plays. You have more experienced players. The best players don’t want to look at coach. They’re looking at the defense. They’re looking at the game. They’re fast and aggressive. They’re read-and-react players.
“We don’t have a lot of players who are good read-and-react players, but they can be.”