On the heels of Saturday’s whipping in the regular-season finale, preparations for Thursday’s Big West Conference Tournament rematch with UC Santa Barbara reads somewhat like a religious experience for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team.
The Mustangs don’t normally relive their heartbreaking defeats, but this instance called for unorthodox measures.
“Sunday’s practice was very hard for our team,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said. “Everybody was very disappointed. There was a cloud of funk in the room that was very real.
“We had to watch the film as a team, and it was almost like we had to purge it, like an exorcism.
“We had to feel the pain of that loss and had to see where we lost the game.”
Where Cal Poly lost in the 71-55 drubbing at Mott Athletics Center is a difficult question to answer. The Gauchos dominated in nearly every aspect.
Simpler to determine is when.
UC Santa Barbara broke an 18-18 tie by closing the first half on a 20-5 run in the final eight minutes and taking a 15-point lead into the break.
Cal Poly struggled to defend, couldn’t make shots and was never able to mount a threatening comeback.
The Mustangs (10-19, 6-10 Big West) missed nine straight shots and turned over possession three times after tying the score at 18. UC Santa Barbara switched from its zone defense to man, and Cal Poly looked wholly unprepared for the scheme.
“It was just that five-minute period in the first half,” senior guard Kyle Odister said. “They got that 15-point lead, and we never came back from that. It was that mental lapse. You could probably see it on the court. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were running into each other.”
Said Callero: “We were not very organized in our man-to-man approach. We had almost forgotten how to play in man-to-man. We looked like we had to reinvent an offense.”
The Mustangs finished just 9 for 40 on field goals inside the 3-point line, and a good chunk of those misses were inside of eight feet.
At the same time, UC Santa Barbara junior big man Alan Williams, named Big West Player of the Year this week, dominated down low, scoring 23 points and drawing enough attention to allow Gauchos shooters to find and hit nine open looks from 3-point range.
Williams also led the defensive charge, coming up with five of UC Santa Barbara’s nine blocked shots.
All of the above is a lot to reconcile leading into the seventh-seeded Mustangs’ noon rematch with the No. 2 Gauchos (21-8, 12-3 Big West) at Honda Center in Anaheim on Thursday.
Correcting everything in a five-day span isn’t likely, but Callero is hoping for a 10 percent improvement nearly across the board. That’s a concept the players can digest.
The mood was certainly lighter Tuesday than in Sunday’s depressing review session.
“Today, you could sense the rebirth,” Callero said. “You could feel the enthusiasm and the optimism of it’s a brand new season.”
Said sophomore center Brian Bennett: “Most of us like” the short turnaround. “They were just here, and the loss is still fresh in our minds, so it gives us something to work toward.”
A seven seed has never won the Big West Tournament. It’s been 18 years since a No. 6 seed has taken it. And, if Cal Poly is to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance, it’s likely the Mustangs would not only have to beat the Gauchos, they will probably have to beat No. 1 UC Irvine (22-10, 13-3 Big West) on Friday.
But that potential matchup is hard to contemplate with Williams still blocking the way.
The 6-foot-7, 275-pound Gauchos center intimidated Cal Poly as much as any player the Mustangs have faced all season, including 7-6 Anteaters center Mamadou Ndaiye.
Williams averages 23.1 points and 10.6 rebounds and is adept at creating passing lanes for himself down low and then back out to shooters when doubled.
Cal Poly found itself in big trouble when Bennett picked up two quick fouls defending Williams on Saturday.
The Mustangs would like to see that play out the other way around.
“I wouldn’t call it stopping him from having his way, just deterring his path a little more,” Bennett said. “We’ve focused on changing some things up and how we’re going to defend him.
“We’re just looking to contain him, not stop him, because you know you’re not going to stop the league’s MVP. Try to get him in foul trouble. That might help a little bit.”