Shawn Lewis has been around to see a lot happen between the Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball teams.
From shoving matches, coaching changes and last-minute upsets, the Mustangs senior guard has gotten a broad range of experience out of a 74-year rivalry that continues with the Gauchos visiting Mott Gym tonight for a tipoff at 7.
“They’re reigning league champions,” Lewis said, “so that’s all the fuel we need right now.”
But there’s so much more fuel to burn.
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Though the Gauchos won the Big West Tournament last year and went on to appear in the NCAA Tournament, the Mustangs stole a 60-57 win in San Luis Obispo late last February.
Cal Poly (8-10, 4-3) is trying to maintain its exclusive grasp on second place in the conference standings this season. UC Santa Barbara (10-7, 3-3) can knock the Mustangs off and grab at least a temporary share of second with a victory.
Though the men’s basketball teams have played 94 times, only last season did the universities begin keeping track of results between the two athletic departments, officially naming it the “Blue-Green Rivalry.” The Gauchos won 12-10 in 2009-10 and lead 4-3 this year.
It’s also the first matchup between the two that will be seen live on local television. Local NBC affiliate KSBY will broadcast tonight’s game with local CBS affiliate KCOY taking over for the regular-season finale March 5 in Santa Barbara.
The basketball rivalry intensified in the 2000s with a flagrant foul that threatened the career of former Mustang John Manley in 2005 and a shoving match between former Cal Poly guard Chaz Thomas and current UC Santa Barbara players Jaime Serna and Greg Somogyi two seasons ago.
First-year Gauchos assistant coach Kevin Bromley was the head coach with the Mustangs during both physical altercations and will be making his first return to the bench in Mott Gym since being fired in 2009.
“I’ve talked to him over the summertime,” Lewis said. “It’s not really a big deal. We want to beat him just to rub it in his face a little bit, but he’s an all-around good guy. There’s no animosity towards him at all.
“We just can’t come out sluggish like we did against Northridge. We have to bring our best defensive game yet.”
Cal Poly, which leads the nation in 3-point percentage defense (25.9) and ranks 13th in scoring defense (59.4 points per game), is coming off its worst defensive game of the season, an 80-65 regionally televised loss at Cal State Northridge on Saturday.
The Mustangs’ defense has been a strength, but they are also in the bottom five in Division I in scoring at 55.9 points per game.
Though coming off a 63-58 loss to Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara hasn’t had a problem scoring. Orlando Johnson (19.3) and James Nunnally (18.2) rank first and second in the Big West in points per game, respectively, and are on pace to become the Gauchos’ most prolific single-season scoring duo.
They’ll be the focus of a Cal Poly defense that has performed better when it’s had more time to prepare and rest. The Mustangs are 3-0 on Thursdays in Big West play and just 1-2 with one day of preparation for Saturday games. “We have to go out there, know the other team before we play them because we can’t let teams score more than 70 points,” junior guard Matt Titchenal said. “Otherwise, we’ll have a tough time winning with our offensive production this year.”
A walk-on, Titchenal has scored 16 points combined in the past two games. He’s gotten 10.3 minutes per game this season largely because of injuries and finally seems comfortable with the extended playing time.
After starting the season 0 for 6 from 3-point range, Titchenal has hit 5 of his past 12.
Because of his breakout performances, Titchenal could continue to see time even though Chris O’Brien is back from a sprained ankle, and Drake U’u is primed to return this week after breaking his hand against UCLA on Dec. 11.