It’s hard to look past a rematch that’s been 55 years in the making with a member of college basketball’s royal court, but if there ever was another game that deserves to be in the same breath with Cal Poly’s return to UCLA, it might be the one that follows.
The Mustangs begin a four-game road trip that includes tonight’s 5 p.m. game with the Bruins (3-4), a Monday night matchup with No. 14 San Diego State (8-0) and a visit to Cal (5-3) next Saturday.
A Dec. 21 trip to Malibu to take on Pepperdine (4-7) will be Cal Poly’s final tuneup prior to starting Big West Conference play at home against Long Beach State (5-5).
Second-year Mustangs head coach Joe Callero is wondering whether this might be Cal Poly’s toughest road trip of all-time.
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It certainly is the first time the Mustangs will ever play in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, which opened more than 10 years after Cal Poly’s most recent game with the Bruins, an 84-55 loss on Jan. 29, 1955.
Add in the fact that UCLA is coming off a four-game losing streak that included a controversial last-second loss at No. 4 Kansas and is still smarting from a 66-57 loss to Montana, and the Mustangs have extra cause for concern.
“UCLA is in a position where they’re still reeling from a heart-break loss,” Callero said. “Sports is momentum. I have a feeling that UCLA is going to be quite ready for Cal Poly at this point.
“They’re going to be ready to punch us in the face.”
The Aztecs, however, might represent an even bigger challenge. San Diego State is the highest ranked team Cal Poly has ever faced.
“If you had looked at the schedule last year, you might have said San Diego State is probably the weakest out of the next three,” said freshman forward Ben Eisenhardt, who will travel for the first time this season as he continues to recover from a fungal infection. “They don’t have as rich of a basketball history, but they’re top-15 in the country right now. I’ve seen them a couple times on TV and they’re a very strong team.”
Plus, UCLA’s history only creates a finite mystique in the minds of today’s Mustangs.
Not only is the current crop of players generations displaced from the domination of the Bruins under John Wooden in the ’60s and ’70s, they’re barely old enough to recall UCLA’s last championship — the 1995 title run spearheaded by Ed O’Bannon and Tyus Edney.
They see UCLA as a recent NBA factory more than a program that at one time won a string of 10 NCAA titles in 12 years.
“I think it’s cool that we’re playing them and it’s been a while and overdue,” said junior forward David Hanson, who leads Cal Poly with 15.4 points per game. “It’s exciting to play in Pauley Pavillion and stuff, but as far as over-hyping it, we look at it as another game.
“UCLA’s a top-tier program, and we want to be playing the best guys on the best teams. We look at it like this is a top-tier team, and we can compete and we can win there.”
If the Mustangs are to compete, they’ll have to improve their offensive efficiency. Cal Poly is shooting just 37 percent from the field this season and only 28 percent from 3-point range.
The offense has been stagnant when neither Hanson nor senior swingman Shawn Lewis, who is second on the team with 13.6 points per game, has taken over.
On the positive note, true freshman point guard Maliik Love had a season-high 16 in the Mustangs’ most recent effort, a 67-48 loss at Loyola Marymount, sophomore guard Chris O’Brien scored in double figures in the three previous games and junior center Will Donahue is averaging more than nine points and eight rebounds.
The problem is getting the combined contribution in the same game.
“There have been guys that have definitely stepped up,” Hanson said. “The past couple games, Chris O’Brien has done a great job. Maliik, his learning curve has just been going up, so, he’s playing great. We’re definitely having other guys contribute, which is huge, and I think we need to continue to have that.”