With no returners from last season’s Western State Conference title team, 19th-year Cuesta College head men’s basketball coach Rusty Blair really doesn’t know how the Cougars will fare this season.
But after three months of conditioning and workouts, and a cut-down process that saw his numbers go from 55 to 15, Blair knows enough to make this lofty statement:
“This is my best perimeter-oriented team I’ve had in my career in 19 years at Cuesta,” said Blair, who has guided the Cougars to back-to-back conference titles. “They are going to shoot the ball lights out from the perimeter.”
The Cuesta roster, which includes seven international players — a Blair trademark — as well as a couple of former local standouts, combined to go 25 for 50 from 3-point range in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage last week.
The new Cougars get their first real test this weekend when they host the Rabobank Tournament, beginning with a first-round game against Solano at 8 p.m. today.
After reaching the Southern California Regional Finals last year, Cuesta comes into this season unranked, likely because of all the turnover.
Assistant coach Ron Barba moved over to become the head coach of the women’s program after the retirement of 30-year coach Ed Musolff.
Barba is being replaced on the men’s team by Blair’s son Casey, who was on the Cuesta bench in 2008-09 after a two-year playing career with the Cougars but spent last season playing abroad.
But the players have more to do with the rankings than the coaching changes. It’s more roster instability than even a junior college program would like.
“It is a real burden,” Rusty Blair said. “I have no one to turn to and say, ‘Sophomores, tell them what it’s all about.’ I don’t have anyone to demonstrate anything. It’s virtually everything from ground level.”
But one thing this season’s team is sure to have that wasn’t around last year is depth.
Blair’s regular rotation last season consisted of six players, with two others playing more minor roles. The Cougars’ 26-6 final record came in spite of some injuries — such as point guard Christian Koutras’ groin or sixth man Henok Yigzaw’s knee.
This season, Blair expects to have a much deeper bench. The program even cut former San Luis Obispo High standout and all-county center Shane Kennedy, who was on the San Francisco State roster last season.
Kennedy, who Blair said was limited in tryouts by a back injury, found a home in Santa Maria at Hancock, which will also play in the Rabobank Tournament.
But Cuesta still has a couple of freshmen who were playing PAC 7 basketball last year.
Nick Sauer, a former Righetti High standout, was the league player of the year as a senior and will look to make an impact for the Cougars.
The 6-foot-6 Sauer led the PAC 7 with 19.8 points and grabbed 10.4 rebounds and has the most polished post-up game of anyone on the roster, Blair said.
He’ll likely be paired in the paint with the 6-7 Ed Hall, an Australian dual citizen. The southpaw is the strongest player on the team.
Former Atascadero High standout Matt O’Connell, a second-team all-county honoree, is the other local product and looks to play a backup role at both guard spots.
A bulk of the team’s scoring looks like it might also come from a trio that include a former Montana state high school player of the year and two more internationals.
As an amateur club player in Germany, Malte Kramer shot close to 50 percent from 3-point range and led his team to a divisional national championship, according to Blair. The 6-7 forward might be the team’s top award candidate.
Sam Milhous, a 17-year-old former standout from Buchanan High in Clovis, adds a 35-inch vertical to a 6-5 frame, Blair said, and scored 14 points against eventual CIF state champion Mater Dei in a first-round playoff game last March.
Casey Rogers, a transfer from NAIA Carroll College in Billings, Mont., is something Blair has not had for a few seasons, a point guard who can score.
“He is well balanced,” Blair said. “He can hand out six or seven assists just as well as scoring 15 to 20 points.
“He is a well-rounded guy. I can see why he was Montana state player of the year.”