“Aggressive” is the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s word of the week.
It’s essentially what the Mustangs weren’t when they needed to be during the first two games of the current three-game losing streak, and head coach Joe Callero uttered the term liberally leading up to today’s 7 p.m. matchup against Cal State Fullerton at Mott Athletics Center and Saturday’s visit from UC Riverside.
Losses to UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State turned out nearly identical.
Cal Poly (8-8, 1-3 Big West Conference) had a 10-point lead on the Gauchos with 7:23 left but gave up a 13-0 run and UC Santa Barbara pulled away for good with a flurry of 3-pointers to win 50-45.
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The Mustangs had a nine-point lead on the 49ers with less than 10 minutes left, and Long Beach State used a 10-0 run to take the lead and won on a last-second layup by senior guard Mike Caffey that made it 50-48.
Callero has big concerns over depth and conditioning.
Junior guard Kyle Toth was recently ruled academically ineligible and will miss the rest of the season. And an illness has been making its way around the locker room.
Sophomore guard Ridge Shipley was sick and missed the game against the 49ers. Junior forward Joel Awich played that one ill. On Tuesday, junior center Brian Bennett sat out practice with an illness, and junior forward David Nwaba played through head congestion.
But excuses over roster instability won’t fix what appears to be a troubling trend of losing control late.
“The bigger concern is us being aggressive when they went on their run,” Callero said. “With our offensive aggressiveness, we have a tendency to let off the gas pedal.
“We get tentative, and we become more patient versus more aggressive, and I think that was the key. It’s not about just finishing a game. It’s about not changing who we are.”
It’s very clear at this point who the Mustangs are.
They feature a low-scoring defense that holds opponents to just 58.8 points per game, which ranks first in the conference and 27th nationally.
Additionally, Cal Poly turns the ball over just 8.7 times per game, good enough to rank in the top five in the country. Its 139 turnovers are the second-fewest nationally.
Yet, as the Mustangs have focused much of their preparation on limiting the opponent and taking care of the ball, Callero said, it has left the players without as much time to spend on deciphering when to attack and how.
Some of that is going to change now that Cal Poly has fallen to the bottom half of the Big West standings.
Going into this week’s games, Callero said coaches have edited game film in the interest of helping individual players see exactly when they need to put pressure on opposing defenses.
“We’ll individually take edits and say, this is when I really need you to be aggressive,” Callero said. “Defensively, we’ve spent so much time, and that’s our identity: What is good defense and what is a smart pass.
“We are going to spend as much time teaching our guys, what is ‘green light’ offensively, when to attack that drive, when to attack the zone. In a funny way, our guys are almost too coachable. They almost need permission to be more aggressive at times.”
Not everything is in shambles. Before the three-game losing streak, Cal Poly had won three straight. Had a play here or there gone differently, the Mustangs could conceivably be riding a streak of having won five of six.
Cal Poly is happy it has held opponents to such low scores, but the Mustangs need to be able to score themselves or the effective defense could go for naught.
“That’s the encouraging part of everything,” Callero said. “We could be 3-1 in conference with two blinks. We have looked at more positives than negatives. Our defense is clearly in position where we can compete for a conference title.
“If you change the whole thing based on one or two possessions, it’s not broken, but it’s got to get better. We’re fully aware of that. We have to give ourselves room for error. Let’s put 55 or 60 points on the board.”