Cal Poly

College Men's Basketball: Mustangs hope to vacate Big West cellar under Callero

Cal Poly’s Lorenzo Keeler drives past UC Davis’ Todd Lowenthal during a Big West Conference game Feb. 18 at Mott Gym.
Cal Poly’s Lorenzo Keeler drives past UC Davis’ Todd Lowenthal during a Big West Conference game Feb. 18 at Mott Gym.

Just call them “The Wills.”

Everybody else already seems to be referring to the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s two junior college transfers — Will Donahue and Will Taylor — in tandem.

And as the season kicks off for a five-game road trip starting with tonight’s season opener at the University of San Francisco, the two big men will be as integral as any in how well the team is able to kick off the Joe Callero era.

Part of the reason the duo will be so important is because of the team’s lack of depth down low. The other part boils down to Callero’s crusade to rid the team of what had been a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality that led to a 7-21 season this past year, including 10 losses of five points or fewer.

Last season, the Mustangs always talked about getting senior big man Titus Shelton more scoring opportunities, and even though Shelton was second on the team with more than 12 points per game, the offense nearly always boiled down to pull-up 3-pointers and other quick shots.

With Callero, there has been a noticeable change in philosophy.

“Totally different,” said senior guard Lorenzo Keeler, who led the team with 12.7 points per game. “I think last year, we were just playing. This year, we’re playing to win. We have a strategy and gameplan, and we’re following that.“Titus was really good for us last year, but this year we got these two Wills. These guys are animals. For the last eight weeks, we know we can throw it in the post and we can get something out of them.”

The emergence of the Wills — Donahue a 6-foot-8 sophomore and Taylor a 6-6 junior —as well as the development of sophomore forward David Hanson have even pushed junior forward Shawn Lewis to a bench role to start the season.

Lewis was the hottest Mustang down the stretch for Cal Poly. The 6-5 swingman had three games with 20 or more points and averaged 17.5 points and more than seven rebounds over the final six games of the season.

But with Callero wanting to go with the two big men in the lineup, something had to give. Hanson, a 6-5 swingman, came back to camp bulked up to 215 pounds after averaging around three points and three rebounds in a reserve role last season.

Hanson has earned a starting spot and enough of his teammates’ respect to be voted as a captain along with Keeler.

But that doesn’t mean Lewis will be out of the picture.

“Shawn had a good year last year,” Hanson said. “In the second half of the year, he shot really well. Shawn’s going to be huge for us. Shawn could easily go out, get 10 rebounds a game, some real ESPN dunks. He really could be a sparkplug.”

Lewis, Hanson, senior forward Charles Anderson (6-6), and sophomore forward Jordan Lewis (6-5) could also find themselves filling in for one of the Wills when things get hairy.

Callero is trying to redshirt 6-10 freshmen Ben Eisenhardt and Ryan Pembleton this year, hoping the two can bulk up for next season. That leaves walk-on senior Ryan Darling (6-7) as the next tallest option. Eisenhardt will be traveling with the team, but Callero likened his availability to that of an emergency third quarterback in football. The coach will not burn the freshman’s redshirt for a tweaked ankle or to quell some foul trouble.

That means Donahue and Taylor will have to be extra aware of how they play defense.

“In a way, passive,” Donahue said, “but we can’t play passive just because we can’t let easy baskets go ahead.

“Be smart about it. If they have the wide open layup, you have to let it go, but everything else, if you’re there, you’re there.”

Cal Poly’s post depth will certainly be tested in nonconference matchups against teams like Stanford, where the Mustangs play Sunday, and Wisconsin (Dec. 16), but those matchups won’t matter as much as how the two hold up during Big West play, where the team has the stated goal of ascending from the basement and qualifying for the conference tournament.

“They both have a little sprit and toughness, and I think their transition the first month or two has been real good for our team,” Callero said. “Just getting that grit, that grimy inside physically and challenging shots. The question is how does that equate over four months when they’re getting beat up and they’re trying to hold their own? That’s when you wish you had the troops, two or three bodies that could come in behind them.”