If there was no clear preseason favorite to run away with the Western State Conference championship this winter, the Cuesta College men’s basketball team has presented a strong case as being a group capable of exactly that.
Andres Aguado’s breakout performance during Wednesday night’s 81-69 victory over second-place Moorpark propelled the 13th-ranked Cougars to their sixth consecutive win and a two-game cushion in the North Division standings.
At the midway point of the conference schedule, Cuesta (19-6, 6-0 WSC) has beaten each of its divisional opponents and built separation as the team to beat during the final month of the season.
“No team expected to run away with the league,” head coach Rusty Blair said. “(Starting) 6-0 was something we didn’t envision because everyone is kind of equal.”
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Getting standout efforts from players like Aguado — a reserve freshman guard averaging less than seven points per game — highlights the depth that makes the Cougars successful. Aguado made eight 3-pointers on nine attempts and scored a career-high 26 points to help Cuesta defeat the visiting Raiders (15-7, 4-2 WSC).
With starters Karem Özel and Beñat Hevia playing the majority of the available minutes in the backcourt, Aguado and fellow reserve Daniel Solis have to make the most of their opportunities.
When Aguado settled into a shooting rhythm against Moorpark, that meant Özel, the team’s second-leading scorer at more than 13 points per game, had to watch the second half from the sidelines. Solis did his part to contribute as well, scoring five points and handing out three assists in seven minutes.
“I feel bad for Karem, he’s averaging (13),” Blair said. “But it’s not about numbers now, it’s about the win.”
The Cougars have relied on an unselfish brand of basketball most of the season, perhaps stemming from the team’s deep international roots.
Blair played professionally for 12 seasons in Europe — he averaged more than 38 points per game during the 1978-79 season — and his program has developed a reputation for welcoming foreign players who aspire to play at the Division I level.
This year’s team features players from seven countries — the United States, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Russia and Cyprus — each bringing different intangibles to the two-time defending conference champions.
In sophomore center Roberto Mantovani, Blair discovered a hidden gem tucked away at Division II Benedict College in South Carolina. The brute 6-foot-8, 235-pound center grew up on the southern coast of Cyprus in Larnaca, the country’s third-largest city with a population of more than 51,000.
Mantovani brings an edge to the Cougars program, both with his physical play and intimidating appearance. His head is shaved and beard is thick. He’ll argue with officials and dive for loose balls and fill up the stat sheet in a hurry.
Cuesta’s leading scorer and rebounder sat out the first half against Moorpark on Wednesday for what Blair called “an internal decision by the basketball team.” He played 19 minutes in the second half, recording eight points, five rebounds and two assists.
“He was a force in the second half, helped us out,” Blair said. “That’s something that all teams have to go through, the nonsense on the sidelines.”
Mantovani’s statistical production has been nearly unmatched among conference peers. Over the 25-game season, Mantovani is averaging a double-double with 14.4 points and 10.8 rebounds — the fifth-highest rebounding average in the state — while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Since the beginning of Western State Conference play three weeks ago, Mantovani has had no trouble elevating his play a step further. In six conference games, Mantovani is averaging an eye-popping 18.7 points and 15.6 rebounds per contest.
Starting forward Rafail Eleftheriou has increased his production as well during the conference season. The 6-7, 215-pound Eleftheriou comes from Limassol, Cyprus, located about 45 miles southeast of Mantovani’s hometown. The two players have developed a connection on the court and seem to be a key factor in Cuesta’s continued success.
A 24-game starter, Eleftheriou averages nearly 12 points, seven rebounds and a team-leading three assists per contest. Those numbers are considerable increases from his freshman season a year ago, when he contributed 6.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
The versatility of all-conference forward Evgeniy Moiseev might be the linchpin that holds the Cougars together.
A native of Magnitogorsk, Russia, Moiseev averages more than nine points and six rebounds per game. His 19-point, 16-rebound effort helped Cuesta overcome Mantovani’s first-half absence on Wednesday.
If the Cougars can beat second-place Ventura at 7 p.m. Saturday, they’ll have at least a three-game lead on every team in the conference not named Moorpark with five games remaining.
“The pressure’s on them. They’ve got to send us an evil message,” Blair said. “… We’ve been understanding the significance of where we’re at right now, but we’ve got to get that one more game that’s going to give us some breathing room.
“Then we can approach the final five with a whole other philosophy.”