With a month left to go in the regular season, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team is confident enough to jump into the top half of the Big West Conference standings and, yet, still dangerously close to last place at the same time.
While only eight of the Big West’s nine programs will make the conference tournament, the Mustangs could have to clinch their spot without leading scorer and all-around standout David Nwaba.
Diagnosed with mononucleosis last week, the junior forward has been ruled out of tonight’s 7 p.m. game against visiting CSUN and remains highly unlikely to be cleared for Saturday night’s game against second-place Long Beach State, also at Mott Athletics Center.
By Wednesday, Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said Nwaba had completed five full days of rest and that he was responding well to the viral infection.
“He’s already clearly feeling much better,” Callero said. “He’s clearly on the mend, but with that type of illness, there’s some caution on with how quickly you can come back.”
Doctors typically recommend 3-4 weeks of recovery before resuming strenuous physical activity and more if internal symptoms persist. There is a serious risk of spleen damage with the illness.
Nwaba would be nearly two weeks into treatment by the start of next week’s road swing at last-place Cal State Fullerton that Thursday. The Mustangs go on to UC Riverside the following Saturday.
“Our worst-case scenario is he could miss the rest of the season,” Callero said. “Best-case scenario, he could make a road trip next weekend.”
These next four games could be crucial for Big West Tournament eligibility considering Cal Poly (10-11, 3-6 Big West) is playing three of the bottom four teams in the conference.
The Matadors (6-19, 2-8) are eighth just one season after they battled the Mustangs in the Big West Tournament final. Last season, Cal Poly won the title and the right to the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth as the No. 7 seed, the spot it currently occupies in the standings.
The Titans (9-14, 1-7 Big West) are in the cellar, just 2½ games behind Cal Poly. UC Riverside (11-12, 4-5) is tied with Hawaii (16-9, 4-5) for fifth.
Should the Mustangs go on a winning streak, they could conceivably make a big jump. Cal Poly is just two wins shy of being all alone in fourth place and would be there now if not for narrow last-second road losses to two of the conference’s top three — UC Davis (18-4, 8-1) and Long Beach State (13-12, 7-2).
Losing Nwaba is a big. He leads the Mustangs with 12.5 points per game and is one of the few Cal Poly players who can create his own shot.
Even when Nwaba has been neutralized offensively — as in last Thursday’s 1-of-12 shooting effort against Hawaii — the Mustangs have still been competitive. They had a chance to tie the Warriors in the final moments of that 59-56 loss.
But now they will be without all of his contributions. Nwaba is arguably the team’s strongest defensive performer, too, leading Cal Poly with 27 steals. He also ranks second on the team with 14 blocks and 4.9 rebounds per game. His 33 assists are also third on the team.
Durability concerns with junior guard Reese Morgan have also cropped up recently. Morgan is averaging 10.3 points, but he missed all of an 81-78 overtime loss at UC Davis with knee soreness before returning to play 30 minutes against Hawaii three days later.
Callero said he is unsure whether Morgan will be able to play both games this week. Senior wing player Michael Bolden figures to take Nwaba’s spot in the starting lineup with senior Maliik Love and sophomore Ridge Shipley starting in the other guard spots. To compensate for lost minutes, Callero plans to give Yuba College transfer K.J. Logue more playing time and bring senior Anthony Silvestri back into the rotation.
The 6-foot-7 Silvestri was given a break after starting 6 of 42 from 3-point range. At 6-5, Logue got his most extensive playing time of the year in seven minutes against Hawaii as junior center Brian Bennett sat with foul trouble but has totaled just 11 minutes all season.
Still, as the Mustangs showed last season, they only have to be at their best between three days in March.
“We’re probably 100 percent out of contention of winning the Big West” in the regular season, Callero said. “So, what we’re looking to do is get better, get healthy and get prepared to play our best in March.”