The class of the Big West Conference comes to Mott Athletics Center this week when the Cal Poly men’s basketball team hosts UC Irvine and Hawaii.
For a Mustangs team coming off back-to-back losses against UC Riverside and UC Davis, matching up the conference leaders provides an intriguing opportunity to right the proverbial ship heading into the second half of the Big West schedule.
Preseason conference favorite UC Irvine (17-6, 6-1 Big West) returns three starters and 10 players from last year’s team that won the Big West Tournament and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
When Cal Poly (8-12, 2-5 Big West) and the Anteaters play at 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Mustangs will pursue their second victory in the past seven meetings between the two schools. Cal Poly’s last win in the series was during the semifinals of the 2014 Big West Tournament.
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Seniors David Nwaba and Brian Bennett combined for 26 points and 11 rebounds that night, and the two players will need similar production to upset UC Irvine again. The 6-foot-4 Nwaba leads Cal Poly in points (12.9), rebounds (5.9), assists (81), steals (28) and free throws made (66) this season.
Bennett, a second-team all-Big West performer as a junior, has returned to form in recent weeks. After dealing with a series of injuries during the offseason and nonconference portion of the schedule, Bennett is averaging 13 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in conference play.
Wednesday’s matchup will be a challenge for Bennett and the entire Mustangs front court — with UC Irvine’s third-year sophomore Mamadou Ndiaye occupying the middle of the key. The 7-6, 300-pound Ndiaye is the tallest player in the country and was named the 2014 Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman.
He averages 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 65.4 percent from the field. Ndiaye’s 53 blocked shots are the most in the Big West and tied for 16th in the nation. Both Ndiaye and teammate Luke Nelson were voted to the media preseason all-conference team. So far, those picks look solid.
Averaging a team-high 12.7 points per game, Nelson has scored in double figures in all seven of the Anteaters’ Big West games.
On Saturday, Cal Poly will get another shot at a Hawaii team that won the first meeting in Honolulu, 86-73, in early January.
The Rainbow Warriors (16-3, 5-1 Big West) are coming off a 14-point loss against Long Beach State, which ended Hawaii’s eight-game winning streak. Four players average in double-digit scoring, led by junior forward Stefan Jankovic’s 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Jankovic recorded a double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds during the first meeting against Cal Poly last month. Senior Roderick Bobbitt scored a game-high 21 points and junior forward Aaron Valdes added 20 in the victory.