The past two seasons, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team has made a habit of upending Pac-12 Conference opponents.
The Mustangs count victories over USC in 2011 and at then-ranked No. 11 UCLA in 2012 among the best under fifth-year head coach Joe Callero and will have three more chances to continue the trend this season beginning with Friday’s 7 p.m. season opener at No. 5 Arizona, the highest-ranked team the program has ever faced.
There will also be games at Stanford and No. 19 Oregon, and a late-December guarantee game at Pittsburgh will be another chance to knock off a high-major opponent and is one of two single-game East Coast road swings Cal Poly will take in nonconference play.
The final tuneup for Big West Conference play will be a Jan. 4 trip to Delaware.
It’s a challenging schedule that in some ways seems randomly selected, but head coach Joe Callero said the structure was partly in response to the program’s bitter postseason introduction last year.
After losing on a heartbreaking buzzer-beater in the conference tournament semifinal, the Mustangs swiftly accepted a bid to play in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, the first national postseason tournament berth in Division I program history.
It wasn’t the NCAA Tournament, but Cal Poly got a taste of the pace of March Madness, and Callero discovered the program was not yet prepared for its rigors after the Mustangs juggled academic finals and a quick turnaround only to get routed 85-43 at Weber State.
At the time, some wondered whether the trip to Ogden, Utah, was worth the beating.
Cal Poly’s response appears to be a sign of progress. The East Coast trips are intended as simulations of what the program’s first NCAA Tournament would be like.
“The thing I wanted to do after last year,” Callero said, “I want us to be in even more adverse situations.
“It puts you in position to learn how much stronger you have to be mentally and the preparation it takes to get to that. You’ve got to be able to let down and then get down to business. That’s not a senior, junior, freshman issue. That’s a program issue.”
Before the Mustangs can set their sights on March, there’s still plenty to get worked out. Although eight players return from a team that won 18 games and set a program record with 12 Big West victories, Callero must solidify a lineup that appears wide open beyond senior forward Chris Eversley, a returning all-Big West first-team selection who averaged 15.4 points and 7.0 rebounds last season.
The former Rice transfer is tasked with filling a leadership void created by the loss of last year’s seniors — Dylan Royer, Drake U’u and Chris O’Brien. Point guard Jamal Johnson and shooting guard Kyle Odister, who each project to start at Arizona, are the other seniors.
“There’s higher expectations just because I’m a senior,” Eversley said. “Coach had high expectations, and he’s only raised the bar for us this year.
“The higher he raises the bar, the higher I can go, and the higher the rest of the guys can keep building themselves up, and we can be ready come March.”
Sophomore center Brian Bennett started every game last season but has been hampered by an injury in training camp and will start the season interchangeable with fellow sophomore big man Zach Gordon.
Junior guard Maliik Love, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, will back up Johnson at the point and could play on the wing if needed. The other starting spot will go to either David Nwaba or Michael Bolden, two junior college transfers Callero said are also nearly interchangeable.
Including junior walk-on Anthony Silvestri, who Callero said will be awarded a scholarship next season, and freshman combo guard Ridge Shipley, there are 11 players who are likely to see time in Tucson, Ariz., on Friday.
All 15 active players on the roster, which does not include injured sophomore shooting guard Reese Morgan, who remains on pace for a possible late-season return following offseason knee surgery, are set to travel for the opener.
Many roles have yet to be defined, but Callero likened his situation to that of Tim Walsh and the Cal Poly football team’s preseason quarterback competition. The Mustangs opened the season with four quarterbacks vying for the starting job. They’ve needed all four of them so far this season.
“That’s the media’s concern,” Callero said. “A coach has never said, ‘God, we have too many point guards, we have too many quarterbacks, because you know it’s going to work itself out.
“I have 10 to 11 guys that could comfortably start for us. You can say that without a doubt that’s an advantage because there’s going to be the flu, there’s going to be an ankle, there’s going to be foul trouble. Somebody’s going to miss the bus. There’s going to be life.”
Life figures to be tough Friday. The Wildcats were the preseason media pick to win the Pac-12 title this season, receiving 21 of 23 first-place votes.
Arizona and Kentucky are the only two programs in the country to have top-10 recruiting classes in each of the past three seasons, and the Wildcats bring in two McDonald’s All-Americans, including forward Aaron Gordon, who was the MVP of both the McDonald’s game last spring and the gold-medal-winning under-19 U.S. national team this past summer.
The environment at Arizona’s 15,545-seat McKale Center is going to be an extreme contrast for Bolden, who played at Irvine Valley College last season.
“It’s completely different,” Bolden said, “but I think it’s good because you have a chance to do something different and make your mark, make an impact and do something new.”