Junior point guard Jamal Johnson gets a homecoming thanks to a connection between two Seattle natives when the Cal Poly men’s basketball team opens its season tonight at TCU.
Johnson, a former standout at Madison High in nearby San Antonio, will be back in the starting lineup for the first time since the first month of his freshman season with plenty of supporters expected in the Horned Frogs’ on-campus arena in Fort Worth, Texas.
It will also be an opportunity for the Mustangs to play in front of their recruiting base. Cal Poly expects to have two Texas players sign letters of intent to join the program next Wednesday, according to published reports.
But the match was made in the Pacific Northwest, where fourth-year Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero and first-year TCU head coach Trent Johnson, formerly of LSU, Stanford and Nevada, share a common tie.
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Callero played for head coach Fred Harrison at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wa., where Callero went on to compile a 130-49 record as head coach himself. Harrison, who was an assistant under Callero at Seattle University before Callero came to Cal Poly, also coached Trent Johnson when he played at Asa Mercer Junior High in Seattle.
And association certainly didn’t hurt when scheduling the season opener.
“Trent and I have seen each other on the road for 20-something years,” said Callero, who even helped his colleague’s son find summer work in Seattle a few years back. “He’s a very experienced coach who gets the most out of his talent, a very intense, competitive person.”
Beyond that familiarity, the theme for both teams is change.
The Mustangs lost five seniors, three starters and all of them played key roles in last year’s 18-15 season.
Cal Poly returns a nucleus of experienced players, including Jamal Johnson, forward Chris Eversley, shooting guard Dylan Royer and swingmen returning from injury Drake U’u and Chris O’Brien.
But the Mustangs are young in the post, where true freshman Brian Bennett will start at center. Bennett, a 6-foot-9 big man from the Chicago suburbs will be backed up by 6-8 Zach Gordon, another true freshman, and 6-7 redshirt freshman Joel Awich.
The youth begs a serious question for the Cal Poly frontcourt.
“Are they going to be able to hold their own and rebound?” Callero said. “We’ve been a very good defensive rebounding team. That’s going to be the biggest measuring stick.”
They’ll be facing a well-rounded team that’s also embracing change.
Johnson joins the program after TCU had its first winning season and postseason berth in seven years. In addition to former head coach Jim Christian, who left for Ohio, the Horned Frogs also lost three key contributors going into their first season as a member of the Big 12.
Sophomore point guard Kyan Anderson, the Mountain West Freshman of the Year last season, might be the most dangerous threat, but TCU also brings plenty of height.
Arkansas transfer Devonta Abron starts at center at 6-8, 255 pounds. The other two projected starters at forward are 6-9 junior Amric Fields, the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year last season, and 6-7 senior Connell Crossland.
It figures to be a daunting debut for the Mustangs’ trio of freshmen big men.
“They just have to slow down,” Eversley said. “A lot of new guys kind of get caught up in the game being so fast. You feel the angst that you want to do something, but sometimes the best thing you can do is sit back and let the game come to you. Once you get into the flow of the game, it becomes easier.”