As the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s bus made the familiar trek from San Luis Obispo to the Los Angeles metropolitan area Wednesday morning, it was a lot like any other road trip.
Some players napped, perhaps dreaming about next week’s final exams. Others watched “The Hangover” as it blared on the bus’s multimedia system. Coaches digested game film and talked strategy.
If there was any indication that Wednesday’s drive could be the first step toward a potential first-time berth to the NCAA Tournament, there were no outward signs.
“I treat this road trip as any other road trip,” Cal Poly junior forward David Hanson said. “Not much changes besides the fact that we have one game left and maybe a little more sense of urgency, a little more focus, a little more locked in. I’m doing what I’ve done all year.”
And that might be the biggest difference about this year’s Big West Conference Tournament for the Mustangs: It’s not unlike those regular-season trips south to places like Irvine, Northridge, Long Beach and Riverside.
Whereas the Mustangs have gone to Anaheim as an also-ran — or haven’t made the trip at all —in the past three years, they head to this tournament, the first to be played in the Honda Center, as one of the favorites.
“It definitely feels a lot different,” senior guard Shawn Lewis said. “We feel more confident, and we’re coming down here with a sense of urgency. We’re not going down here just glad we’re making it in the tournament. We got a good seeding and we’re playing a team we beat twice before. This level of confidence feels good.”
Second-seeded Cal Poly (15-14, 10-6 Big West) will face No. 7 UC Riverside (11-18, 6-10 Big West) at 6 p.m. today with the winner moving on to Friday’s semifinal round. The Cal Poly women, who survived Tuesday’s first-round home game against Cal State Fullerton, play Pacific in the semis Friday at noon.
The Mustangs men are led by Hanson and Lewis, two all-conference honorees who each averaged 15.1 points per game during the regular season.
While the Highlanders’ defense likely concentrates on how to limit those two, the key to the third and final meeting between the two teams will probably revolve around a familiar question.
Will a third offensive weapon emerge for Cal Poly?
Mostly, that player has been junior center Will Donahue, who averages 8.4 points per game and scored 16 in a 56-40 blowout win over UC Riverside in mid-February. But other players have filled that role, too.
Freshman point guard Jamal Johnson scored 11 in the first game against the Highlanders, a 65-60 comeback victory in late January. Matt Titchenal had a career-high nine points in that game, too.
Big West co-freshman of the year Maliik Love had 14 points in a win over UC Irvine, sophomore guard Chris O’Brien scored 16 against Long Beach State, and most recently, reserve walk-on guard Dylan Royer of Morro Bay broke out for a career-high 12 points in a late-February win at Cal State Fullerton.
“We’ve got to be more efficient offensively and develop that third guy,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “Whether it’s Donahue, O’Brien, Maliik Love, Dylan off the bench, if we can get that third guy to score, that’s been the theme all year.”
Said Hanson: “When different guys step up and do that and make plays, add to the scoring, I think it’s great because it loosens the defense up all around. You can’t just key on different people. You have to guard everyone.”
Defensively, the Mustangs have developed a reputation for being a well-prepared team.
Cal Poly again ranks first nationally in 3-point percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 27.8 percent from beyond the arc. The Mustangs are also sixth in the country in scoring defense (58.5 points per game).
Despite the runaway win last time, it won’t be so easy defending the Highlanders again.
During Cal Poly’s 16-point victory last month in Mott Gym, UC Riverside was without leading scorer Phil Martin, who sat out the game with a leg injury.
Having scored 20 or more points seven times this season, Martin was the reigning Big West Player of the Week before he got hurt, and in six games since returning to the lineup, he has averaged 17 points.
The Mustangs are coming off a tremendous defensive effort against UC Santa Barbara, where they limited the Gauchos to just 49 points and at one point held them scoreless on 12 straight possessions.
But Cal Poly still ended up with a six-point loss, meaning the onus again will be on that mysterious third-leading scorer.
“We go through spurts where we can defend,” Callero said, “but we have to capitalize on that.”
“Every guy has had a game that’s had enough impact to really say they’ve helped us win a game. I think that’s the epitome of what we’ve done this year.”