Cal Poly

Cal Poly coach Joe Callero ‘pretty optimistic’ heading into Big West Conference play

Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero works with his team during practice at the Mott Athletics Center. The Mustangs open Big West Conference play at 5 p.m. Saturday at UC Davis.
Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero works with his team during practice at the Mott Athletics Center. The Mustangs open Big West Conference play at 5 p.m. Saturday at UC Davis. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero spoke with conviction Tuesday night when he said he feels “pretty optimistic, pretty excited” for the Mustangs to start Big West Conference play this week.

A depleted roster and current five-game losing streak haven’t hindered the eighth-year head coach’s spirits, and that might be one of the most important factors for a Cal Poly team that’s had to reinvent itself this winter.

Speaking on his weekly radio show, Callero recapped the Mustangs’ 5-9 nonconference schedule — which included three games against Pac-12 opponents — and looked ahead to a 5 p.m. Saturday matchup at UC Davis to open the Big West slate.

“I’ve got nothing but optimism,” Callero said.

Still, there are several uncertainties surrounding Cal Poly entering its conference opener.

The Mustangs are trying to build chemistry and a team identity after losing their top two players in Josh Martin (season-ending injury) and Jaylen Shead (transfer) before Christmas.

Perhaps Cal Poly’s biggest question is who can provide consistent offense. Senior Kyle Toth’s 11.3 points per game are a team high, followed by Victor Joseph (9.9), Luke Meikle (9.4) and Donovan Fields (9.3).

The Mustangs have become increasingly reliant on the 3-point shot, and their 335 attempts (23.9 per game) are tied with UC Irvine for the most in the Big West by a wide margin.

Callero knows conference opponents will pressure the 3-point line, meaning Cal Poly will need contributions from an inexperience front court.

Meikle is the proven scorer of the group, while Zach Gordon, Aleks Abrams and Hank Hollinsgworth offer steady defense and rebounding.

“We’ve got to get some points from our interior guys,” Callero said. “That’s no secret.”

The Aggies (8-7) are the only team in the Big West with a record above .500, and with nine upperclassmen on the roster, UC Davis has one of the more experienced teams in the conference.

Cal Poly has lost five straight games at The Pavilion in Davis, with its last victory there coming in 2012.

All things considered, the race for the Big West title appears wide open during the first week of January. And with last year’s regular season and tournament champion Hawaii ineligible for postseason play, the Mustangs are guaranteed a return trip to the Big West Tournament in March.

Here’s a quick look at where the Big West stands heading into conference play:

UC Davis (8-7)

Head coach Jim Les discovered a hidden gem this offseason in the form of junior college transfer Chima Moneke. The 6-foot-6, 223-pound forward from Australia spent the previous two seasons at Northeast Community College, and he’s made a seamless transition into Division I. Moneke is fourth in the Big West in scoring (14.9 points), first in rebounding (8.3) and fifth in field-goal percentage (56.0).

Cal State Fullerton (6-7)

The resurgent Titans landed two players on the preseason all-conference team in guards Khalil Ahmad and Tre’ Coggins. While Ahmad, the Big West Freshman of the Year last season, was academically ineligible for the fall quarter and did not return until Dec. 22, Coggins has proven to be one of the elite scorers in the conference. The 6-3 senior guard leads the Big West and ranks 38th nationally by scoring 20.4 points per game.

Hawaii (6-7)

The Rainbow Warriors experienced a dream season under first-year head coach Eran Ganot in 2016. Hawaii won a program-record 28 games, captured the Big West regular season title, the Big West Tournament championship and defeat Cal in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This year, former transfers Noah Allen (UCLA), Gibson Johnson (Salt Lake Community College) and Jack Purchase (Auburn) have helped the Rainbow Warriors make up for the loss of Big West Player of the Year Stefan Jankovic.

UC Irvine (7-9)

The Anteaters also won a program-record 28 games last season. But with 7-6 shot blocker Mamadou Ndiaye departed for the NBA and potential player of the year Luke Nelson sidelined for the first 15 games with a hamstring injury, it’s been tough to get a read on UC Irvine. Nelson’s injury allowed fellow senior Jaron Martin to take on a larger role, and he led the team in points (14.3 per game), assists (56) and 3-pointers made (37) during nonconference play.

Long Beach State (5-11)

Don’t let the 49ers’ nonconference record fool you. They were the preseason conference favorite in a landslide and have played arguably the most difficult schedule in college basketball, a slate that included road games at Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Washington, Kansas and Texas. Juniors Evan Payne (14.5 points), Gabe Levin (12.2) and Justin Bibbins (10.5) have played well against the best competition in the country and will have Long Beach State in position to contend for a Big West championship.

CSUN (4-9)

The Matadors’ roster is littered with transfers from power conference schools, and partially for that reason, they were picked to finish third in the preseason media poll. Things haven’t quite gone as planned for head coach Reggie Theaus. CSUN has lost four of its last five entering the Big West opener. Still, junior guard Kendall Smith has taken another step forward individually. He’s averaging 15.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on the highest scoring team in the Big West.

UC Riverside (2-9)

Offense has been hard to come by for the Highlanders, who ended a seven-game losing streak with a rout of Grand Canyon last week — their first win over a Division I team this year. All-conference performer Secean Johnson leads three players in double-digit scoring with 11.4 points per game, to go with a team-high 5.0 rebounds. But the 64.4 points UC Riverside averages offensively ranks last in the Big West, and it’s amplified by a poor field-goal percentage of 38.1.

UC Santa Barbara (2-10)

With 18th-year head coach Bob Williams in charge, no one is counting out the Gauchos. Williams surpassed the 300-win mark last season and has some work cut out for him in the coming months. Junior guard Gabe Vincent will likely be the stabilizing force moving forward. A preseason all-Big West selection, Vincent is the second-leading scorer in the conference at 16.2 points per game, to go with 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists. The addition of the 6-8, 276-pound Jalen Canty — the 2016 California State Player of the Year at City College of San Francisco — should also benefit UC Santa Barbara in conference play.

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