Head coach Jim Les and the UC Davis men’s basketball team are living out the dream scenario for most schools in the Big West Conference each year.
The Aggies won the Big West Tournament last week in Anaheim — going through No. 7 Cal Poly, No. 3 Cal State Fullerton and No. 1 UC Irvine — to earn the conference’s lone automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
UC Davis then defeated North Carolina Central on Wednesday night in a First Four matchup of No. 16 seeds hoping to face one of college basketball’s bluebloods in No. 1 Kansas on Friday in the Midwest Region.
Capturing that sort of March magic doesn’t happen often for Big West programs. In the last seven years, seven different teams have won the conference tournament, including Cal Poly’s stunning run in 2014.
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But the Mustangs have made little noise since, and the 2016-17 season was perhaps a reflection of the challenges Cal Poly faces in building and maintaining a competitive mid-major program.
From the outside looking in, it starts with the amount of physical talent on the roster.
The difference between UC Davis, a team that starts four seniors and one junior in Big West Newcomer of the Year Chima Moneke, and Cal Poly was clearly defined.
Head coach Joe Callero was dealt a difficult hand from the start when sophomore point guard Jaylen Shead transferred midseason and explosive forward Josh Martin suffered a season-ending injury in December.
Any program that loses two starters — and the team’s two most productive players — will likely experience a dip in all areas. What followed was a 10-game losing streak (among the longest in school history) and a 0-5 start in the Big West.
Cal Poly’s starting lineup shifted frequently, and more than half of the regular rotation had never played in a Big West Tournament game before last week. An already thin margin for error is amplified when Cal Poly faces more athletic teams, and that happened regularly this winter.
“We don’t have much room for a poor fundamental play,” Callero said. “We don’t have a ton of athleticism that makes up for it right now.”
Credit Callero for pulling the most out of a group that, even at 11-20 overall, may have overachieved this season. Still, it’s worth asking when — and if — the Mustangs will be able turn the corner and become a consistent threat in the Big West.
They’ve shown a knack for the occasional upset and beat several of the top teams in the conference this season. But on paper, the program has been trending downward for some time.
Cal Poly’s last winning season was 2012-13, the year before its NCAA Tournament berth. It’s easy to forget that 2014 team was 14-20 and won six Big West games during the regular season. Since then, the Mustangs have averaged 11.3 wins per season.
Recruiting will always be a challenge with the school’s rigorous academic requirements, no doubt contributing to why Callero fielded a roster with seven transfers and one true freshman this year.
Traveling from San Luis Obispo is no picnic, either, so it’s easy to understand an 18-year-old’s potential reservations about coming here.
The two seniors were dynamic players and, probably more important, leaders for a young team that at one point looked lost.
Shipley’s career highlights include the game-winning 3-pointer in the Big West Tournament championship game and a senior year filed with gritty performances.
Gordon’s path took a few more twists and turns because of injuries, but at 6-foot-8 and with a nonstop motor, there’s no reason he won’t have an opportunity to pursue professional basketball overseas.
“I know I have the skill and talent to,” said Gordon, who led the Mustangs in blocks and rebounds.
As Callero and his staff turn their attention to next season, the most exciting development has to be a potentially healthy Martin. He ranks among the best athletes in the conference and will be the anchor for Cal Poly moving forward.
There are some interesting returning pieces in guards Donovan Fields and Victor Joseph, as well as Polish forward Jakub Niziol.
But unless Callero is able to secure some immediate help in recruiting this offseason, it’s hard to tell if the program will make a significant improvement next year or beyond.
Still, three special days in March can turn things around in a hurry.
Just ask UC Davis.
“This has been an unbelievable ride,” Les said Wednesday night, “and we’re not ready to go home.”
Cal Poly Men’s Basketball Year-in-Review
Record: 11-20, 6-10 Big West
Key losses: PG Ridge Shipley, SG Kyle Toth, F Zach Gordon
Top returners: PG Donovan Fields, SG Victor Joseph, F Josh Martin