Cal Poly

Big West Conference Tournament: It’s a quick turnaround for Cal Poly, UC Irvine

Cal Poly’s Lorenzo Keeler shoots over UC Irvine’s Emil Kim during Saturday’s game at Mott Gym. UC Irvine won 91-84 in overtime after the Mustangs had won at Irvine earlier this season.
Cal Poly’s Lorenzo Keeler shoots over UC Irvine’s Emil Kim during Saturday’s game at Mott Gym. UC Irvine won 91-84 in overtime after the Mustangs had won at Irvine earlier this season. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

During Saturday’s game with visiting UC Irvine, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team had no clue that a loss to the Anteaters would set up a rematch in today’s first round of the Big West Conference Tournament.

Players even seemed unaware that they could have ended UC Irvine’s season by holding onto their eight-point lead in the final 50 seconds of regulation.

“I thought they were already in it,” Mustangs guard Shawn Lewis said after the 91-84 overtime loss to the Anteaters (14-17, 6-10 Big West), who needed the win to climb out of last place.

Cal Poly (11-18, 7-9 Big West) could come back to regret that oversight after the two teams play at the Anaheim Convention center at 8:30 p.m., but Mustangs head coach Joe Callero contends that the loss has already been erased from the memory banks.

“The bottom line is we gave ourselves 24 hours to celebrate, 24 hours to pout,” Callero said at a news conference Monday. “Pouting’s over with, celebration’s over with. We have Big West Conference basketball (tonight).”

It might be best that the Mustangs go into the tournament with a blank slate, depending on how you look at the end of their season.

Five weeks ago, Cal Poly was defying all projections by going into the last game in the first round of conference play sitting in second place.

Callero was on pace for a strong coach of the year candidacy for turning around a team that was left out of the tournament the year prior.

Since then, the Mustangs have lost eight of 11 games, a slide that prompted a position change for its leading scorer. Lorenzo Keeler was moved from the wing to the point, a spot he had never manned at Cal Poly, to help stop the bleeding.

Forgetting the ground the team lost en route to its sixth-place conference finish certainly would not be a bad thing.

There are also, as Callero pointed out, alternate ways to interpret Cal Poly’s final six games.

During that span, the Mustangs have reeled off three signature wins for Callero: A double-overtime road victory, a blowout over a Western Athletic Conference team and a late home victory over regular-season champion and archrival UC Santa Barbara.

The three losses during those six amount to two buzzer-beater defeats and a five-point road loss that came down to controversial calls at the end of the game.

“What we’re trying to look at is how we hit the tournament,” Callero said. “Our victories are great victories that we’ve had ... Our losses have all come down to the last second.

“We feel confident as a team we can play with anybody in the Big West.”

The parity in the conference is easy to see. Cal Poly claims wins over three of the top five teams, and only three victories separate third place from last place.

Though the potential four-game run the team would need to get to the NCAA Tournament would be unprecedented in the Big West, the Mustangs will try to do it by focusing on the three facets Callero said were key to the team’s turnaround.

Cal Poly has gone from ranking last in the conference in shooting percentage, rebounding and assists to near the middle of the pack in all three categories.

“As we hit playoffs, we’re going to go back to the same thing,” Callero said. “We have to rebound the basketball. We have to share the basketball ... and field-goal shooting percentage. We’re just going to focus back on those issues of not winning and losing but how you play the game.”

Win or lose, Callero could still likely look at this season as a success.

The Mustangs qualified for the Big West Tournament and finished with a .500 record at home a year after going winless at Mott Gym in conference play.

Those distinctions came with two walk-ons in either the starting lineup or the regular rotation while starting center Will Donahue sat out all but the first 10 games with eligibility issues, two freshmen redshirted and another freshman signee did not make it to Cal Poly.

The team also had two Division I transfers and a mid-year junior college transfer sitting out.

With two more freshmen set to join the team next fall and another recruiting period to go this spring, it’s safe to assume the Mustangs could look a lot different in 2010-11.

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