One team is coming off the best season in program history; the other, one to forget.
The Cal Poly women’s basketball team was one win away from the NCAA Tournament last season. The Mustangs men were the only team left out of the Big West Conference Tournament.
There are reasons for renewed optimism for each. The women return all-conference star and former Righetti High standout Kristina Santiago. The men have brought in former Seattle coach Joe Callero to turn around a program that was in the Big West title game in 2007 but fell to 7-21 last season.
The public’s first chance to get a glimpse of either will happen in tonight’s joint venture, an exhibition called “Mott Madness” that will take place after Cal Poly’s home volleyball match with UC Davis.
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There will not be any 5-on-5 scrimmaging prior to the start of Saturday’s opening practice. In its place tonight is a slam dunk contest, a 3-point shooting contest pitting men against women and a 2-Ball exhibition featuring players, fans and Special Olympians.
It will be the first time Cal Poly has had a special basketball tip-off event in at least the past five seasons, said 13th-year women’s head coach Faith Mimnaugh, and the resurrection of the idea seems to be the brainchild of first-year men’s head coach Callero, who was inspired to include Special Olympians after taking part in a regional meet at Cuesta College in May.
“It’s pretty darn heartwarming,” Callero said. “You see all those kids come in, some of them are in wheel chairs, other ones they were smiling and looking at our players and giving our guys high fives. This was their Olympics and we were clapping for them.”
The event is aimed more at reaching out to the community and celebrating the efforts of Special Olympians rather than showcasing the on-court talent of the two Mustangs teams, but each coach really has a few more weeks to go before knowing exactly what kind of product will be on the floor when the season starts Nov. 13.
Coming off a season where she guided Cal Poly to a 21-11 record, had the team’s first winning season in 17 years and tied a 27-year-old program record for victories, Mimnaugh was awarded an extra year on her contract, which now runs through 2010-11, according to Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone.
Santiago, a Big West Player of the Year candidate, returns after leading the team with 15.2 points per game and grabbing 5.3 rebounds. The 6-foot-1 junior is expected to play everywhere from the pivot to the wing.
“She has potential to play in the WNBA,” Mimnaugh said. “She’s not there yet, but we’re working on that. She’s one of those kids that has a really great shot at making it. I think the community should embrace that.”
The Mustangs led the conference in scoring (65.9 ppg), 3-point percentage (.365) and assists (16.25 per game) a year ago but will be hard pressed to replace second- and third-leading scorers Megan Harrison and Lisa McBride, who combined to put up more than 24 points per game and pull down more than 12 rebounds.
At 45.2 percent, McBride was the leading 3-point shooter in the Big West. Harrison ranked in the top 10 in five different statistical categories.
“It’s the decision-making skills as well,” Mimnaugh said. “They’re not going to necessarily show up in a statistical category — how fast the ball moves, making the right read, are they open or not open — those things that come with having two people on the court for four years together.”
It was McBride who found Santiago streaking for a layup for the winning basket in the waning seconds of the Big West Tournament semifinals last season.
“We can’t replace them,” Mimnaugh said. “We can try to have some committee fill in some of the blanks. In my view right now, we don’t have anybody that’s really surfaced as being a straight replacement.”
The men’s team went winless at home in the Big West a season ago and lost seniors Titus Shelton and Chaz Thomas, who combined to average more than 23 points.
This biggest change, however, may be the addition of Callero and his staff, who are eager to see what the newcomers they’ve brought in can add to the existing nucleus of junior Shawn Lewis (11.7 ppg., 5 rpg.) and senior Lorenzo Keeler (12.7 ppg.).
“I think there’s obviously guarded enthusiasm,” Callero said. “There’s excitement about, ‘Hey this is a new opportunity.’ I don’t think anybody’s expecting a top-three finish just given the number of returnees and the late recruiting. I think that people are realistic but optimistic.”
In addition to point guard Kyle Odister, who signed with previous coach Kevin Bromley, Callero was able to bring in six recruits after being hired in early April, includ-ing three post players at 6-8 or taller.
But Division I transfers Chris O’Brien and Drake U’u will each have to sit out this season. Callero signee Sean Hinkley, a 6-7 swingman from Torrance, and point guard recruit Amaurys Fermin, a 6-2 junior college transfer, did not make it to Cal Poly.
Their eventual return to the Mustangs has not been ruled out, but Callero was counting on Fermin, a former New York prep standout, this season and had him penciled in to start coming into the school year.
Instead, Callero said he’ll rely on off-guards Lewis and Keeler to handle the ball in addition to a timeshare from sophomore Justin Brown and Odister.
Earlier this week, Callero spoke of understated goals like having a winning record at home and rising out of the Big West basement.
Anything more might depend on how well the coaches can implement new offensive schemes and a complicated matchup zone defense and how quickly players can pick those things up.
That will all come with practice. For now, Mott Madness is about fun and supporting the Special Olympics.
“I think it makes our student population say, ‘That’s cool, we have our priorities straight,’ ” Callero said.