When the Cal Poly men’s basketball team could hardly hit a thing in Saturday’s loss to UC Santa Barbara, one of the lone beacons from 3-point range was Joel Awich.
On a night the Mustangs (8-6, 1-1 Big West Conference) were 4 of 22 from long range and shot a season-low 23.4 percent from the field overall, the junior forward accounted for half of the team’s 3-pointers.
Awich was 2 for 3 on 3s and tied a career high with a team-leading 13 points in the 50-45 loss. The success signaled a shift in the start to the season for Awich. In his first year as a full-fledged starter, Awich hasn’t been shy about hoisting outside shots but struggled to connect early on.
Conference opponents have held leading scorer David Nwaba under double digits scoring each of the past two games, something that hadn’t happened all season before last week.
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Junior center Brian Bennett’s conference-leading 54.8 percent shooting from the floor may have teams rethinking how they defend him as well.
Awich could be the biggest wild card on this week’s road trip to Long Beach State and CSUN. “We’re going to need Joel,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said Tuesday, “as teams concentrate on David Nwaba, our leading scorer, and now Brian, I think, is going to see some double teams.”
Awich is already one of the best shot-blockers in Cal Poly history. The 6-foot-7 post player’s 74 career blocks rank fifth in the program record books and his 17 this season sit him fifth in the conference.
The best rim defenders aren’t the players that typically let loose on 3s, but Awich has made it a regular part of his game. He has the sixth-most 3-point attempts on the team, but he came into the game against the Gauchos just 3 of 18.
Those numbers are just part of the standard deviation for a player getting his first run as a full-time starter, Callero said. On the bright side, three of Awich’s five 3-pointers this season have come in the past week.
“I always say it takes 5-10 games for somebody to identify what their role might be on a given team,” Callero said, “and I see Joel emerging in that role, playing with more confidence as this year continues on. I really like his development.”
Cal Poly is going to need more production from its shooting guards in Thursday’s 7 p.m. game at Long Beach State (7-11, 1-1 Big West) than it got against UC Santa Barbara. Reese Morgan and Michael Bolden combined to go 0 for 10 as the Mustangs saw a double-digit lead erased late in the second half when the Gauchos caught fire from long range.
Led by senior guards Mike Caffey and Tyler Lamb, the 49ers have excellent perimeter defense, Callero said, which won’t make things any easier on Cal Poly’s outside shooters.
It could be up to Awich and backup big man Anthony Silvestri to provide the extra points here and there with their outside shooting to secure a victory.
“We think Joel’s perimeter scoring complements David driving,” Callero said. “If Joel is just inside all the time and doesn’t stretch the floor a little bit, the court gets too crowded. You have a four and five man standing in the key. David’s never going to be able to get to the hoop.”
Mustangs’ rebuilding is slow to yield success
The Cal Poly wrestling team broke a 0-8 start to the season with its first dual-meet victory, a 28-11 win over Brown on Saturday.
The record represents a decline in success under fourth-year head coach Brendan Buckley.
The Mustangs were 6-7 in duals his first season, 2-11 two seasons ago and 3-9 last season. Individually, Cal Poly’s grapplers are unranked going into Friday’s 7 p.m. match against Air Force at Mott Athletics Center.
Buckley said unfortunate circumstances have kept the program from having success.
“When I started, we didn’t have a large amount of depth,” Buckley said. “A lot of that was just sort of normal transitional part of a coaching change.”
The Mustangs are young. When they face off against the Falcons, senior 174-pounder Dominic Kastl is slated to be the only grappler that isn’t a freshman or sophomore.
The lone remaining wrestler recruited by former head coach John Azevedo, Kastl (8-3) is likely also Cal Poly’s biggest hope for making the NCAA Championships. Devon Lotito advanced to the national meet each of the past two seasons but did not return for his junior year.
It was seven years ago that Chad Mendes advanced to an NCAA Championship title match. Since then, Chase Pami and Boris Novachkov have done the same. Buckley said he is aiming to heighten Cal Poly to an even grander scale.
“We’re trying to build a winning program, not just a few key individuals,” Buckley said. “We’ve said it from the beginning. We want to do it the right way. If that’s slow and steady, so be it.”