Two things separate Cal Poly’s showdown with first-place Long Beach State tonight from the Mustangs’ 16-point loss to the 49ers in Mott Gym in the Big West Conference opener two months ago.
Cal Poly (14-12, 9-4 Big West), which despite Saturday’s last-second loss to Northern Arizona still owns a five-game conference winning streak, has developed more of a distinct personality heading into a 7 p.m. game at the Walter Pyramid.
With Shawn Lewis on an offensive roll and making things happen in the post, the Mustangs are scoring more, and they’ve fully embraced their identity as one of the most efficient defensive teams in the country.
In a game where Long Beach State (17-10, 11-2 Big West) can clinch the regular-season conference title with a victory, the above points would indicate a closer matchup between the 49ers and second-place Cal Poly.
But then there’s the other new development.
“The difference I see in them right now is Casper Ware has gone from an all-conference candidate to an MVP candidate,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said.
“He’s improved his perimeter shooting. We have to give him that much more attention, everywhere on the floor.”
Ware, Long Beach State’s 5-foot-10 junior point guard, has increased his scoring average to 18.2 points per game in conference play, good enough to rank second in the Big West, largely because of improved long-range shooting.
He is shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range, sinks nearly three of them a game and still leads the conference with more than five assists per game.
“His quickness and being able to hit the 3-point shot, now, makes him very hard to guard,” said Mustangs reserve point guard Jamal Johnson, who scored 12 points on 5 of 6 from the field in the previous matchup. “He finds open players, puts players in position to score where they’re good, and he can create his shot off the dribble.”
The 49ers are not all about Ware. Larry Anderson is scoring better than 16 points per game in conference play, Greg Plater is also averaging 2.8 3-pointers per game, and Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps all rank in the top eight in the conference in rebounds.
Being well-rounded makes Long Beach State tougher to limit offensively, but Cal Poly has grown to pride itself on taking opponents out of their game plan.
The Mustangs still rank first in the nation in 3-point percentage defense (26.6 percent) after holding Northern Arizona, the Division I leader in 3-point percentage (43.5 percent) to 6 for 20 on 3s.
Cal Poly also ranks sixth in the country in scoring defense, allowing opponents only 58.3 points per game and is 25th in Division I in field-goal percentage defense (39.8 percent).
After blowing out Cal State Northridge by 23 points to follow up an 80-65 loss to the Matadors in January, the Mustangs are confident that they are improved enough to avoid another lopsided loss to the 49ers.
“You could say that about the Northridge game,” Lewis said. “We came out here, played our game and got them really good. We’re a whole different team than the first time we played Long Beach. We’re way more confident, we have a different game plan and we got momentum going into this game as well.”
The 49ers also have some momentum, having won six straight, including five straight conference games since suffering their only two Big West losses back-to-back to UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge.
During that same span and then some, Lewis has taken over the scoring load for Cal Poly. Twice notching 25 points, Lewis has averaged 21 points per game in the past nine games.
The senior has surpassed junior David Hanson for the team scoring lead and ranks sixth in the Big West with 15.7 points per game.
Hanson isn’t far behind at 15.3 points per game, and the key for both players has been the team’s focus on getting each the ball inside early on.
“We’ve really made Shawn’s primary offense start from the post position,” Callero said. “He still is a perimeter player for us, but we initiate his offense through the post action, and then he pops out, gets in transition, we get him an alley-oop, but about 50 percent of his touches come from the block.
“It’s harder against Long Beach State because they’re so athletic, but we’re not going to change our plan.”