LOS ANGELES — When the Cal Poly men’s basketball team took the floor for Saturday’s 72-61 loss at UCLA, the Mustangs were without two of their biggest bodies in a contest where size came at a premium.
It’s not a new or unanticipated problem, but that hasn’t made it any easier for Cal Poly (3-5) to deal with.
Neither senior Will Taylor nor redshirt freshman Ben Eisenhardt has played a minute for the Mustangs this season.
Taylor, a 6-foot-7 forward who played major minutes inside after transferring from Hagerstown Community College last season, asked coaches to redshirt this year, and Eisenhardt, a 6-foot-10 forward with an inside-out offensive game, has been battling a bout with a fungal infection.
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“It’s hurt, and we just don’t have many options,” said Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero before Saturday’s game.
Callero, who’s also had to adjust to season-ending injuries to sophomore Kyle Odister and junior Amaurys Fermin, two projected starters at guard. “I think where we feel it most is the second half of road games. I don’t think we have felt the short bench at home as much as when we were at Montana State, when we were at Sac State and we were at Loyola Marymount.
“The physical beatdown occurs. That’s what this weekend is really going to be about, trying to develop the stamina to play dominating high-profile programs.”
Cal Poly travels to No. 14 San Diego State on Monday in the second leg of the current four-game road trip prior to the start of Big West Conference play and goes to Cal next Saturday.
Taylor started nearly two- thirds of Cal Poly’s games last year, particularly after starting center Will Donahue was sidelined with an academic issue after 10 games.
Taylor shot 44.7 percent from the field and averaged 4.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game and also led the team with 28 steals.
In line with most junior college transfers at Cal Poly, Taylor is not on track to graduate until his fifth year.
Because he wanted to spend that fifth year on the basketball team, Taylor said he brought the idea of redshirting to Callero. It would give Taylor another year to soak in Callero’s tutelage and give more minutes to Eisenhardt and Ryan Pembleton, the Mustangs’ other 6-10 redshirt freshman.
“I’ve only been playing basketball since 11th grade,” Taylor said. “I just wanted to become a better all-around player instead of someone who’s just known for playing hard. Playing hard only gets you so far in basketball.”
When the plan was proposed, the Mustangs were not expected the injuries to Odister and Fermin, and the loss of Eisenhardt has had Callero wishing he had Taylor on the court.
Eisenhardt will eventually provide some relief. He went through pre-game warmups for the first time all season prior to the UCLA game and is targeting the Mustangs’ conference opener against Long Beach State for his return.
But it’s uncertain what his effectiveness will be right away because of the illness.
Commonly referred to as valley fever, the infection has caused Eisenhardt, listed at 220 pounds on the roster, to lose 15 pounds.
Whereas cases of the disease are usually mild, Eisenhardt reported a two-day rash, nine-day fever, extreme loss of appetite and dense lung congestion.
“I was playing about as well as I’ve played at Poly and then messed up my ankle and was out for a while,” Eisenhardt said. “I was coming back, starting to get my legs back under me, and this popped up. So, it was absolutely frustrating, but life throws hurdles at you, and you just respond to them.
“I’m doing the best I can to make sure it’s as small of a setback as possible. I’m trying to pay attention to what they’re implementing, so when I get out there, I don’t have to ask any questions. I can be right where everyone else is.”