Talk of the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s hot start to the season always seems followed by a big, qualifying “but.”
At 9-4, the Mustangs are on track for their best record in Division I program history.
Cal Poly’s defense ranks eighth in the country in points allowed per game.
Amaurys Fermin has emerged as an all-conference caliber point guard, the type San Luis Obispo hasn’t seen in recent memory.
All of the above would inspire plenty of optimism that third-year head coach Joe Callero could take the Mustangs on their first trip to The Big Dance in March — if only Long Beach State (7-6) and UC Santa Barbara (5-5) weren’t standing in the way.
The 49ers ran away with the Big West Conference regular-season title last year. The Gauchos have been to two straight NCAA Tournaments. Both feature a senior-laden nucleus of starters that has been starring together for years and hasn’t shown many signs of slippage this season.
UC Santa Barbara guard Orlando Johnson leads the Big West with 21 points per game and stands alone as the conference’s top pro prospect. Long Beach State point guard Casper Ware, a darling of college basketball insiders, was a trending topic on Twitter during a nationally televised 86-76 victory over then No. 9-ranked Pittsburgh in November.
“Those guys have earned it,” Callero said. “In my mind, they should be where they are ranked and be preseason favorites because they’ve already proven it. What we’ve proven is we’re a good, solid, competitive team.”
Cal Poly can bust its but this week, though.
The Mustangs open Big West play hosting UC Santa Barbara at 7 p.m. Monday and head to Long Beach State on Thursday before coming back to Mott Gym for a Saturday matchup with surprising Cal State Fullerton (9-3), which ended December on a six-game winning streak.
With anything better than a 1-2 split, Cal Poly would have to be considered a championship contender at the very least.
In reality, the stretch won’t make or break the Mustangs’ season, but it could go a long way in changing the perception of a group of experienced players less heralded than their counterparts from Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara.
“We respect those teams, but we’re not afraid of them,” said Cal Poly senior forward David Hanson, the Mustangs’ leading scorer at 11.2 points per game. “We’re right there. We’re just as good. We’re just not getting the publicity that those teams are.
“We’ve got older guys that have been with Callero for several years now. That’s huge, knowing what he wants. The mixture of experience as well as talent all the way around has really helped us,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of talent in the past, but we haven’t been able to put it all together like we have this year.”
Well-versed in Callero’s matchup zone defense, Cal Poly came into Thursday’s 67-61 win over NAIA Hope International allowing 54.7 points per game and ranking 40th nationally by holding opponents to 28.6 percent from 3-point range.
Though remarkable, the statistics aren’t surprising considering that the Mustangs also finished among the nation’s leaders in both statistical categories last season.
Where the Mustangs have made a more quality leap has been on offense. Scoring is up, and 3-point shooting is up. Assists are up. Turnovers are down.
The biggest reason for the trend has been Fermin, who leads the Big West in assists (58), assists per game (4.5) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1:1).
Also the team’s second-leading scorer with 10.7 points per game, Fermin has not disappointed in what will be his one and only season playing at Cal Poly.
The former junior college transfer missed all of last season with a torn ACL that pressed two true freshman into full-time ball-handling duties, but he has returned to bring a steady hand to the position that’s needed one for a few years now.
Whether it’s been penetrating drives for scores, pushing the ball on the break or finding open teammates, Fermin has been giving the Mustangs what they need and when.
And the Gauchos have only seen him on tape.
“I change up throughout the game,” Fermin said. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve got to make plays throughout the whole game. There’s times that I’ve got to take the shots that I’ve got to take.
“UCSB-Cal Poly is probably the biggest rivalry,” he added. “That’s what everyone talks about. I’m real excited to be a part of it and see what I can do to contribute for my team to come up with the victory.”