Cal Poly

Cal Poly men's basketball: Things looking up for Mustangs

Joe Callero’s first season as the head coach of the Cal Poly men’s basketball team shared some elements with 1980s sitcom “The Facts of Life.”

Like the theme song intoned, “You take the good. You take the bad.” But at the end of the episode, things were headed in a generally positive direction.

The team was successful in getting to the Big West Tournament and won a first-round game before being knocked out in the second round Thursday.

The Mustangs (12-19) were .500 playing at Mott Gym a year after going winless at home in the Big West Conference.

They also had a signature home win over rival UC Santa Barbara, which was awarded a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

Senior Lorenzo Keeler, the team’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, withstood a move from shooting guard to point guard and was named to the Big West All-Conference first team. Freshman Kyle Odister, signed in the early period by the previous coaching staff, was named to the conference all-freshman team.

The negatives included separate five-game losing streaks — one to start the season and another near the end that knocked Cal Poly out of the running for the Big West regular-season title after the Mustangs started 5-2 in conference play.

Losing was expected in his first season turning around a 7-21 team, but Callero was also without three of his seven committed recruits for academic reasons at points during the season.

“From kind of an overall perspective, we’re pleased at how the year went,” Callero said. “We might have been four and four the final eight games, but every one of the games were last-second games.

“It’s not what has happened but what was the direction of the program. The enjoyable or rewarding part was that the players never really hanged their heads. And they were very enjoyable to be with. That’s not coachspeak. If they weren’t enjoyable, I wouldn’t even bring that up.”

The surprising part to the 5-2 start in the Big West was that it came after starting center Will Donahue, a sophomore junior college standout, was ruled academically ineligible to start the winter quarter. Donahue averaged 11.8 points and 8.8 rebounds through the first 10 games of the season. Fellow junior college recruit Amaurys Fermin had to transfer in midseason and ended up sitting out the season, and high school signee Sean Hinkley did not make it in to Cal Poly and ended up at Miramar College.

Both Donahue and Fermin are enrolled at Cal Poly and are practicing with the team. Providing they maintain their eligibility, they’ll be active for the Mustangs next season.

Callero chalked up the academic casualties to the short amount of time he had to pull everything together. After being hired in early April, the former Seattle coach had about a month to hire a staff before the start of the signing period.

“We weren’t in a position where we had six-to-nine months of recruiting in front of us,” Callero said. “It was more of high-risk, high-reward type of situation … And so I think realistically, we looked at three kids we knew quite well were all available maybe because of that very reason.

“My response to critics is you look at the body of work.”

The other four recruits — two Division I transfers and two 6-10 freshmen — each redshirted this season. Along with the two incoming freshmen signed this past fall, six new players could see the court next season, while only three graduate.

Of the players who sat out this year, Callero was highly complimentary of Fermin and Chris O’Brien, a sophomore transfer from San Francisco that started for the Dons as a freshman.

“Chris is a very strong 6-4 player,” Callero said. “He can play the point. He can shoot. He can handle the ball, a great decision-maker. He’s actually a good three-man from the defensive angle, somebody who has the physicality to guard some of the more physical, well-built players.

“Chris has the ability to score, and with Amaurys distributing, Chris will be able to score. They’ll complement each other.”