A once-promising start to the season for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team has quickly turned sour following its third straight lopsided defeat.
Saturday night’s 80-60 loss to Ivy League champion Princeton at Mott Athletic Center was the Mustangs’ fifth out of their last six games, erasing a solid 4-2 start, of which their only two losses were closely contested games against Pac-12 opponents. In Cal Poly’s last three games, including losses to Fresno State and Bethune-Cookman, they’ve been outscored by an average of 18 points.
During the three-game slide, the Mustangs have shot less than 40 percent from the field after doing so in four of their last six.
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“What I’m trying to do is get our team to the point where we can win the game by only making four or five 3s. Having a real gritty effort defensively,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said.
Callero also attributes part of the stretch to teams scouting the Mustangs effectively.
“(Teams) are doing things differently. They’re playing outside-in on us,” he said.
The Tigers and their famed offense poured in 16 three-pointers and shot 50 percent from the floor. The rematch was eerily similar to last season’s 81-52 loss in New Jersey.
The Princeton offense — first implemented in the 1960s by Pete Carril — caused problems for the Mustangs in the first half, where the Tigers staked a 35-18 lead.
The Tigers’ offense has no defined positions, instead, there are five players who can each shoot, pass, and dribble. This type of versatility, is seen at the collegiate level, gave Cal Poly’s more traditional approach to offense matchup problems on both ends of the floor.
“They probably play 10 people, and probably eight of them consistently shoot threes, so it’s just about being aware of who you’re guarding,” Mustangs senior forward Luke Meikle said.
Princeton is not the only team to shoot well from outside against the Mustangs. In four of the last five games, teams have shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The losing streak also coincides with the return of redshirt junior Josh Martin. Martin scored 11 points off the bench in the loss, after scoring a career-high 19 points in his second game back from injury against Bethune-Cookman. Despite the scoring, the offense is still adjusting to Martin’s return.
“Obviously, he missed three weeks of practice and games,” Callero said. “I think he’s integrating into the conditioning. I thought he made big strides.”
The Mustangs adapted in the second half against Princeton, running the offense in the post through Martin, sophomore Hank Hollingsworth and senior Meikle, who had a team-high 18 points.
The development of Hollingsworth has been ongoing throughout the season after appearing in 29 of 31 games as a freshman. The forward had four blocks against Princeton — one shy of his career high — and was a key part in holding the Tigers to under 40 percent from inside the arc. Hollingsworth is second in the conference in blocks per game with 2.1.
“Hank is one of the most consistent kids I have coached,” Callero said. “You don’t see flashes of Hank, you just see steady Hank.”
With teams blanketing the Mustangs’ perimeter, figure on the likes of Hollingsworth, a healthy Martin and Meikle to be essential in ending the losing streak. Callero is hoping their solid presence inside will open up outside shooting.
The Mustangs will fly to Texas to play at SMU (5 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN3) and UTA (5 p.m. Thursday, ESPN3), before returning home Dec. 30 to play Notre Dame de Namur at 7 p.m.