After a couple of setbacks, Amaurys Fermin is finally free to lead the Cal Poly men’s basketball team, and the timing could hardly be better.
The Mustangs, who begin practice Monday for this month’s international tour of Costa Rica, will be happy to have their only fluent Spanish speaker at last serving as the floor general he was touted to become two years ago.
“All the guys joke about it,” said Fermin, who was born in the Dominican Republic and has spent time in Puerto Rico and Cuba. “They said, ‘We’re going to ask Amaurys what the other team is saying, and we’re going to know what kind of plays they’re running.’ ”
The NCAA allows teams to travel internationally once every four years. The Mustangs went to Australia in 2007. This is the program’s first trip to Central America.
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Even more so than his language skills, Cal Poly — which returns leading scorer David Hanson, Big West Conference co-Freshman of the Year Maliik Love and leading rebounder Will Donahue as well as seven others who logged court time last season — values the leadership that can only come from a veteran point guard.
“He’s a leader,” senior forward Will Taylor said. “He can make an open shot. He can dribble the ball between five defenders. He’s a point guard. He has a big heart, and he doesn’t back down from anything. He’s going to bring the East Coast swag here.”
Fermin had a roundabout trip to San Luis Obispo from Bronx, N.Y., where he led his high school team to a city championship in front of Spike Lee at Madison Square Garden in 2005.
Two prep schools and two junior colleges later, Fermin finally transferred to Cal Poly, but lingering units he needed to complete kept him off the court for the Mustangs in 2009-10. Just days into training camp last season, he tore his right ACL.
Though that leaves Fermin with only one season to play for the Mustangs, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound senior is looking better than ever since being cleared to play two months ago.
“He’s quicker, he’s jumping higher for sure, even with the knee,” said Taylor, who also played with Fermin at Hagerstown College in Maryland. “He’s way better than juco. This is the best he’s played, right now.”
Taylor is also getting rave reviews for a redshirt workout regiment that saw him lose close to 40 pounds and increase his vertical by almost six inches in one year away from the team.
At 6-7 and 225 pounds, Taylor is showing flashes of athleticism in offseason pickup games that his teammates never saw in a junior season where he averaged 4.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in 2009-10.
“It’s amazing. He’s really transformed his body,” said Hanson, who scored a career-high 15.2 points per game and was named second-team all-conference. “He’s a lot faster, stronger, quicker, more athletic. He’s really put in the time, and he’s going to be really valuable for us, something we didn’t have last year.
“We all knew he could do it, but to actually see it happen is kind of eye-opening.”
Cal Poly will also have a couple of new names on the court for its four international exhibition games, which include two dates against the Costa Rican national team.
Rice transfer Chris Eversley is one of many players making their first trip outside the country. A 6-foot-6 forward from Chicago, Eversley spent the past season leading the scout team while he sat out the season to fulfill transfer eligibility requirements.
With his size and athleticism, Eversley might receive comparisons to graduated senior Shawn Lewis, who was a key scorer and rebounder during last season’s 15-15 campaign and second-place finish in the Big West.
He isn’t ready to plug himself into Lewis’ spot straight away.
“I want to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Eversley said. “I don’t want to clarify myself as a certain role. I’ll do whatever I can do to help us get this win.”
The only freshman on the team is Reese Morgan, a recently named Parade Fourth Team All-America selection who averaged 22.5 points during a four-year prep career and scored 27.3 points per game and grabbed 7.3 rebounds while leading Palos Verdes Peninsula High to the quarterfinals of the CIF Division II state tournament as a senior.
Morgan joined the team in its voluntary offseason workouts when he started attending summer school in June.
Having previously done nothing more than push-ups and pull-ups for strength training, Morgan said the past couple months in Cal Poly’s weight training program have already made a difference in his physique.
At 6-2 and 195 pounds, Morgan figures to crack into the Mustangs’ largely veteran rotation in his first season on campus, and the trip to Costa Rica is only helping to further blend with the team.
Rooming with Hanson and junior Drake U’u, Morgan has had far more time to bond with teammates than a freshman who joins the team at the start of fall classes in September.
“Everybody’s good. They’ve been great to me, making me feel part of the team,” Morgan said. “It’s been a little weird not having too much of a summer and going to school and coming up here not knowing too much about it, but in the long run, it’s going to pay off for me.”