The Cal Poly men’s basketball team is out of the running for a first-round bye in next week’s Big West Conference Tournament, which kind of takes some punch out of tonight’s home finale.
But there is still a little something for the Mustangs to play for at Mott Gym.
By virtue of Long Beach State’s 76-74 last-minute home win over UC Riverside on Friday, Cal Poly (11-17, 7-8 Big West) is assured of no better than fifth in the Big West, a placement that would require the Mustangs to win four games in the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
With the amount of parity in the conference — the bottom seven teams could all finish with .500 or worse records — the difference between the fifth and eighth seeds on a neutral court is negligible.
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“I don’t see that there’s any momentum-building issues either way,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said of the possibility that his team could now be slotted anywhere between fifth and seventh after watching the televised UC Riverside loss.
The eight-team Big West Tournament begins Wednesday at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Had the Highlanders won, Cal Poly would have still been able to sneak into the fourth spot, a seed that guarantees a berth into the quarterfinals — where a team needs just three wins to earn the Big West’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
The Mustangs would have had to beat UC Irvine in tonight’s season finale at 7 and need help from Cal State Fullerton, which hosts UC Davis.
“What matters to me most is how we play,” said Callero, who said he was only passively watching the Long Beat State-UC Riverside game.
“Obviously, you would have liked to see the opportunity for us (to finish fourth), but there’s never an investment like your own team.”
A top-four finish in the conference would have been a coup for Cal Poly, which was left out of last season’s Big West Tournament after finishing in ninth place and was predicted to repeat that result by the media in the preseason.
With a first-year coach and less established talent on the floor, not much was expected from the Mustangs.
“I think that’s a feather in our cap for the first year that we’re highly competitive,” Callero said.
“It’s a compliment to the players, it’s a compliment to the staff. There was clearly some good talent on the roster … The part that we were looking for was how much we could improve the other moving parts.”
With all talk of a fourth seed out the window, the focus shifts to what else is at stake in the matchup with the Anteaters (13-17, 5-10 Big West).
Of the two stated preseason goals by Callero, one has already been accomplished: Secure a spot in the conference tournament.
The other was “establishing a home court advantage,” which Callero has qualified as finishing with a winning record at home. Cal Poly went 0-8 at home in the Big West last season.
At 6-5 overall in San Luis Obispo, the Mustangs need to beat UC Irvine to maintain their above-.500 record at Mott Gym. That would also put Cal Poly at 8-8 in the Big West, and send seniors Lorenzo Keeler, Charles Anderson and Ryan Darling out on a high note.
“First, it means we’re playing well,” Callero said. “It clearly is a winning record at home, but the other thing that kind of creeps up to us is it’s senor night. You want to win for those seniors that have been real contributors in emotional ways.”