ST. LOUIS — Kyle Odister knew exactly what he was walking into.
Before the fifth-year Cal Poly senior guard arrived on campus way back in 2009, the Mustangs men’s basketball program was in shambles.
Cal Poly had just finished 7-21, went winless at home in Big West Conference play and missed the conference tournament for the second time in five years.
A midseason dismissal of the team’s starting point guard and an on-court shoving match with rival UC Santa Barbara only heightened the scrutiny on then-head coach Kevin Bromley, who was fired after the season.
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Odister signed with Bromley and Cal Poly in the early period before the season in the fall, and after new head coach Joe Callero arrived in the spring, the Sacramento native chose to honor that commitment and come to San Luis Obispo.
Five years later, the Mustangs have their first NCAA Tournament appearance and victory in Division I program history, and the turnaround is what Odister said he cherished most after No. 16 seed Cal Poly’s 64-37 Midwest Regional loss to No. 1 seed Wichita State in the round of 64 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“When I came into Cal Poly, I knew I could make a difference,” said Odister, who finished fifth in program history with 176 career 3-pointers. “I felt like I could come in and make change in the program, and that’s what we’ve done over the years. I knew that would happen eventually. At the end of the day, I’m happy with my decision, and I’m proud to be a Mustang.”
Battling chronic foot injuries nearly his entire career, Odister shot 38.7 percent (176 of 455) from 3-point range.
He made the Big West All-Freshman team his first year, and Cal Poly finished 12-19, a five-win improvement over the previous season.
Serious ankle issues cropped up in the offseason, and Odister redshirted the following year, but the Mustangs continued their upward climb, finishing .500 at 15-15 in 2010-11.
The next two years, both 18-win seasons, Cal Poly seriously contended for a conference title, finishing as high as second in the standings.
This past season was a definite regression, ending with a 14-20 record, but an improbable run to the Big West Tournament title and the Mustangs’ memorable first entry in the NCAA Tournament leave a lasting glow of achievement over what otherwise would have been a subpar season.
The 81-69 First Four victory over Texas Southern in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday sweetened the deal but also contributed to fatigue and lack of preparation time going into the loss to the Shockers.
“The big next step in the program is to be directly into the second round,” Callero said, “so you get the equal amount of preparation and rest as your opponent. That would be tremendous.”
Credit much of the success to Callero. He brought a defensive-minded approach that has helped keep the Mustangs in games even when they’ve been outmanned.
He was also happy to heap praise on his personnel.
Chief among the reasons for this year’s spectacular late-season run, Callero said this week, was the character of the players on the roster, all but one of whom have been brought in under his watch.
Cal Poly simply refused to admit defeat — not as the only No. 7 seed to win the Big West Tournament title, not against a Gauchos team that spanked the Mustangs in the regular-season finale, not against top-seeded UC Irvine in the semifinals, not trailing by four in the final 1:10 of the conference tournament final against Cal State Northridge.
There is a lot of positive to overshadow Friday’s thorough defeat in the minds of the Mustangs when all is said and done.
What senior forward, leading scorer and conference tournament MVP Chris Eversley will recall most is, “Just the camaraderie and the family atmosphere. Ever since the beginning of the season, we’re a family, and we have each other’s back no matter what.”
Odister was the last player recruited by Bromley to remain with the team, bridging the eras as a symbol of rebuilding.
The entire journey from start to finish is his reward.
“In the time I’ve been here, everything’s changed,” Odister said. “As a senior, just going out as the first team to go to the NCAA Tournament, it’s just something big. I’ll always remember how I was here from the beginning.”