The Cal Poly men’s basketball program anticipated being invited to a postseason tournament if plans to win an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by taking the Big West Tournament title fell through.
Athletic director Don Oberhelman and head coach Joe Callero weighed the pros and cons of playing in a lesser-prestigious tournament as the regular-season wound down, and representatives from both the College Basketball Invitational and the College
Insider.com Tournament reached out to the Mustangs before the start of the Big West Tournament last Thursday.
Callero had conversations with seniors Dylan Royer, Drake U’u and Chris O’Brien about the chances Cal Poly could get to extend the season.
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But even knowing the possibilities, the mustaches Royer and U’u had grown in anticipation of the conference tournament — inspiring replicas worn throughout the stands at Honda Center — were shaved off before the Mustangs even got on the bus to return home following Saturday’s 55-53 semifinal loss to eventual champion Pacific.
“I was going to do it anyway,” Royer said. “The whole point of keeping it was because we were winning. So, as soon as we lost, basically an hour after the game, it was gone.”
Cal Poly was hot down the stretch. The Mustangs won six in a row before the loss to the Tigers, and entered the semifinal having won nine of their past 10.
Cal Poly accepted a bid to the CIT, where it will play an even hotter team that also had some bad luck in the conference tournament.
The Mustangs (18-13) will travel to Big Sky Conference runner-up Weber State (26-6), which had won 13 straight before losing 67-64 in the conference tournament final against regular-season champion Montana.
The Wildcats lost guard Damian Lillard, who was picked sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in last summer’s NBA Draft, but Weber State was still a statistical juggernaut in the Big Sky.
The Wildcats led the conference in scoring offense (75.7 points per game) and defense (61.5 ppg). They were also tops in rebounding, field goal percentage offense and defense and 3-point percentage, where they came into the week ranked second in the country converting 41.9 percent from beyond the arc.
“They don’t have a weakness,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “The key is that we’re going to have to play, I wouldn’t say nearly a perfect game, we’re going to have to play a game, and they’re going to have to slip up and not play well.
“They have five really good players. They don’t have a Damian Lillard that’s going to be another first-round draft pick right now. It’s a really well-balanced, well-organized, experienced and confident team.”
Should the Mustangs beat Weber State, which has the best record of any CIT team, it’s still unlikely that Cal Poly would host a game at Mott Gym.
Oberhelman said it makes more financial sense for the program to play on the road because home teams must negotiate financial guarantees paid to the tournament, which then provides travel accommodations for the visitors.
Even if the Mustangs can sell out Mott Gym at close to 3,000 seats, it would be hard for Cal Poly to make money on a home game since, Oberhelman agreed, guarantee bids can average around $35,000.
One of the attractive aspects to playing in the CIT was the opportunity to continue to play games at a low cost if the Mustangs continue to win and play on the road.
The 32-team tournament, which also includes Big West Programs UC Irvine and Hawaii, is not bracketed and teams are matched up on a round-by-round basis.
“It’s the best move for us,” Oberhelman said, “and just the opportunity to keep playing is good.
“It gives us a little bit of a kickstart on the following season. That’s how I’m kind of looking at this one.”
As it is, Cal Poly is playing in its first national postseason tournament, and with two more victories would break the program record for wins in a season.
“We would like to be in a slightly different tournament,” Royer said, “but at this point, any tournament is history. Any time you can be a part of history, we’re definitely grateful for that opportunity.”