Six weeks ago, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team appeared to be headed for one of its worst seasons in recent memory.
The Mustangs slogged through a 10-game losing streak that spanned most of December and January and lost six of their first seven Big West Conference games.
But something changed during a trip a Jan. 26 trip to Bren Events Center, where Cal Poly blew past then-undefeated UC Irvine for its first victory there since 2012.
It was perhaps a sign of things to come.
Fast forward to today, and the Mustangs are riding their first three-game win streak since November, having won four of their last five overall. The strong final push has led to a 7 p.m. Saturday matchup with UC Santa Barbara in the final edition of the Blue-Green Rivalry this season.
“There’s been a ton of work that’s put in to turn this team into a momentum team that we are right now,” head coach Joe Callero said following Thursday’s 76-70 win against CSUN at Mott Athletics Center.
The Mustangs (11-18, 7-9 Big West) are currently seventh in the conference standings and trail the Matadors by one game. Cal Poly could secure the No. 6 seed for next week’s Big West Tournament with a win over the Gauchos on senior night and a loss by CSUN against third-place Cal State Fullerton.
Callero expects a rowdy environment for Saturday’s regular season finale against a UC Santa Barbara team that is 5-22 overall and 3-12 in the Big West. One of those wins came against the Mustangs after rallying back from an 11-point halftime deficit.
“You’ve seen the team get better the last three, four weeks,” Callero said. “Now we just can’t stop that progress in all the little areas. It’s exciting. It’ll be a great atmosphere, we hope.”
Seniors bid farewell
The last remaining holdovers from Cal Poly’s 2014 team that won the Big West Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first and only time in program history will be honored during a pregame ceremony Saturday night.
Senior point guard Ridge Shipley is having arguably the best season of his four-year, 119-game career. He scored a team-high 17 points in the win over CSUN, to go with six rebounds and four assists. The Texas native is averaging 10.7 points per game while leading the team in assists (101) and minutes (30.8) this season.
Fifth-year senior forward Zach Gordon, also a freshman on the Mustangs’ NCAA Tournament team, was at his best Thursday night. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Gordon scored eight points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots in 24 minutes off the bench.
“Seeing where I was to where I am, over five years, it’s interesting to look back at it,” Gordon said.
Fellow fifth-year senior Kyle Toth also will play his final home game Saturday night.
Toth’s career path has taken him from Army to Foothill College to Cal Poly, where he’s played 40 games in a Mustangs uniform. He’s had a career year this season, averaging 9.9 points and leading the team with 67 made 3-pointers. Toth’s 44.4 shooting percentage from behind the 3-point line is the second-highest mark in the Big West.
Callero said he plans to start all three seniors against UC Santa Barbara.
“Maybe that will get us off to a better start,” Callero said. “We have not had great starts at home.”
There is no bigger factor in Cal Poly’s late-season turnaround than the steady play in the backcourt. While Shipley is the driving force that makes the Mustangs go, sophomore Donovan Fields and junior Victor Joseph deserve their portion of the credit.
The speedy Fields, a New York native who transferred to Cal Poly after one season at Odessa College in Texas, recorded 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals in the win against the Matadors. It was his team-leading 19th double-digit scoring effort this season.
“I feel like right now, we’re really getting into our groove,” said Fields, who is averaging 11.5 points and leads the Big West in free throw shooting percentage at 86.7. “I feel like it’s a really good time to start right now because tournament play is coming right up.”
The often-reserved Joseph is the Mustangs’ leading scorer in his first year with the program. That’s not particularly surprising for a junior who averaged more than 21 points per game last season at Chaffey College.
Joseph has scored in double figures in 12 straight games, including a run of four consecutive 20-point performances, two of which came against conference leaders UC Irvine and UC Davis.
“If we’re going to be doing any damage in the Big West Tournament, we’ve got to just get better,” Callero said. “We’ve got to play a little better in any way. We’ve got to get better.”