It’s been nearly a month since the Cal Poly men’s basketball team secured one of its most impressive nonconference victories in recent memory, defeating an athletic and usually troublesome Fresno State team at home.
Coming off that wire-to-wire victory, the Mustangs were 5-3 overall and preparing for a challenging six-game road trip against five teams with winning records before the start of Big West Conference play.
Fast forward three weeks, and Cal Poly (6-7) is backing into its Jan. 6 conference opener at Hawaii after losing four of its last five games. Those four setbacks have been decided by an average of more than 18 points per contest, with opponents outrebounding the Mustangs by nearly seven rebounds per game.
Monday’s 82-63 loss to No. 20-ranked Texas A&M in College Station marked the end of nonconference play. The Aggies (10-2) led by as many as 22 points and forced 11 of Cal Poly’s 13 turnovers in the first half.
Senior forward Joel Awich, the Mustangs’ second-leading scorer at 10.9 points per game, injured his left ankle against Texas A&M and was put in a walking boot on the bench and did not return.
“We aren’t really encouraged by that,” head coach Joe Callero told USA Today. “Two of the coaches saw him step on a foot, that’s what you worry about when stepping on a foot as opposed to rolling the ankle. … He was in real good pain.”
Defending the 3-point line has been a key shortcoming in Cal Poly’s recent slide. In their last four losses, the Mustangs have allowed opponents to make more than 48 percent of their 3-point attempts (47 of 97), including a remarkable 61.3-percent outing from Saint Mary’s on Dec. 14.
Saint Mary’s, USC and Texas A&M all shot better than 49 percent from the field against a Cal Poly team that has historically been among the stingiest defensive programs in the Big West. That has changed dramatically through the first two months of this season, and the Mustangs are giving up the most points in the conference at 75.2 per game.
In Callero’s first six seasons, Cal Poly limited opponents to fewer than 64 points per contest. This year’s total is the highest since the 2009-10 season, when the Mustangs gave up 75.3 points per game and finished the year 12-19 overall.
It seems going to a faster pace offensively — Cal Poly is the second-highest scoring team in the Big West through 13 games — has played a role in the defensive regression. During their current road swing, the Mustangs are allowing 85.8 points per contest, thanks in part to a 101-point outburst from the Trojans in Los Angeles on Dec. 17.
Do-everything senior David Nwaba has proven to be one of Cal Poly’s most consistent and versatile players on a team full of capable scorers. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound guard leads the team in scoring (11.5), rebounding (5.6), assists (61), steals (22) and minutes (348).
Awich is leading the team in blocks (15) for the fourth straight season, and he ranks second on the team in scoring (10.9) and rebounding (5.2).
Senior Reese Morgan and third-year sophomore Taylor Sutlive are both shooting better than 47 percent from behind the 3-point line this season, ranking second and third in the Big West in that category, respectively.
Morgan has made a team-leading 31 3-pointers and is shooting 47.7-percent. Sutlive is on a similar pace: He’s made 47.5 percent (28 of 59) of his shots from beyond the arc.