When Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero was asked what he told the Mustangs following their home loss to Cal State Fullerton on Thursday night, he compared the team’s recent slide to a farmer attempting to grow corn.
It was a fitting analogy for a young and inexperienced Cal Poly team that allowed Titans senior Tre’ Coggins to erupt for a season-high 34 points in arguably the most efficient shooting performance of his career.
The Mustangs gave Coggins — the Big West Conference scoring leader at 19.7 points per game — too many uncontested looks at the basket in the first half and never fully recovered on the way to their seventh consecutive defeat.
“If you go out in the field and the corn is six inches high and you try to pull on the corn, it’ll be dead next week,” Callero said. “You fertilize it, you water it and then you wait for the sun to come out and have some time with it. You cannot force what we need to get better with. We need sunshine.”
It seems clear the payoff for that ground work isn’t going to come overnight.
Seven of the 12 Mustangs who played during Thursday’s 87-74 loss inside Mott Athletics Center were transfers or used a redshirt last season. And because of injuries and attrition, many of those new faces are doing the heavy lifting for Cal Poly (5-11, 0-2 Big West) during their first trip through the conference schedule.
Sophomore guard Donovan Fields, a transfer from Odessa College, reached double-digit scoring for the ninth time this season with a team-high 15 points.
Senior point guard Ridge Shipley, one of two remaining holdovers from the 2014 team that reached the NCAA Tournament, added 12 points and a career-high eight assists with one turnover in 34 minutes.
“You never know what’s going to come during the game,” Shipley said. “We’ve got to just keep bouncing back and learn from everything, tough losses like this. We grow as a team, grow as person, grow as a player.”
Junior college transfer Victor Joseph settled back into a rhythm offensively with a 12-point performance off the bench. The junior guard was one of the Mustangs’ most consistent scorers through the first month of the season, but an illness over Christmas Break led to a downturn in production in recent weeks.
Callero hopes Joseph will be one of several key players — along with previously injured juniors Taylor Sutlive and Josh Mishler — who can give Cal Poly a boost as they get their legs back under them.
“We had a great week of practice,” Callero said. “The only way this team is going to really get better is by playing more games.”
The Mustangs will get that opportunity at 7 p.m. Saturday when they take on UC Santa Barbara at The Thunderdone in the first edition of this year’s Blue-Green Rivalry.
The Gauchos (2-12, 0-2 Big West) own the worst record in the conference but gave a talented UC Irvine team all it could handle in a close loss Thursday night.
UC Santa Barbara has won five straight games against Cal Poly and features one of the elite players in the Big West in 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Gabe Vincent.
Though the Gauchos are the worst shooting team in the conference statistically, defending the 3-point line has been a key shortcoming for the Mustangs this season. And Vincent is capable of exploiting that weakness.
“We ran after three or four guys that are drivers. We ran after them, they drove right by us. We hopped into guys that are pure shooters,” Callero said. “So what it tells me is that the only way this team is going to get better is to play more games under fire. We need game reps.”