The Cal Poly men’s basketball team is set to find out quickly how it stacks up in the Big West Conference.
Of the four Big West teams with the best nonconference records, Cal Poly will play three over the next two weeks beginning with Thursday’s Big West opener against visiting Hawaii at 7 p.m.
Riding a four-game road losing streak, Cal Poly (4-9) returns to play at Mott Athletics Center for the first time since Dec. 14 with the second-worst record in the conference, ahead of only Long Beach State (4-10).
But like the 49ers, the Mustangs’ nonconference schedule is regarded as one of the toughest in the Big West. CBS Sports calls Long Beach State’s the second-toughest nonconference schedule in the country and slots Cal Poly at 20th.
According to ESPN’s rankings, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly rank 1-2-3 in schedule strength among Big West programs.
But losing to the likes of Arizona, Pittsburgh, Oregon and Stanford doesn’t necessarily make the Mustangs a good team. Those losses only proved that, unlike previous seasons when they’ve pulled off Pac-12 upsets, Cal Poly is not on the same level as those high major opponents this season.
Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said his team’s weaknesses were thoroughly exposed in a tough road schedule, and there’s room for improvement in all aspects.
“The biggest thing that we have to do is real simple, consistency,” Callero said after practice Tuesday.
“If you’re just average in one area in a night, you can still win a game, but you can’t have swings of inconsistency, which is exploited when you play on the road and when you play, simply, against better teams.”
For Cal Poly, much of the trouble has been on the offensive end, and outside shooting has been a particular problem.
The Mustangs are shooting more than 21 times per game from 3-point range, a figure that ranks 61st in the country, but they are connecting on just 28 percent, which puts them just outside the bottom 10 percent of Division I teams.
Last season, Cal Poly shot 37.5 percent on 3-pointers but lost sharpshooter Dylan Royer to graduation, and sophomore guard Reese Morgan, whose scoring garnered him Parade All-America honors in high school, has missed the entire season so far recovering from knee surgery.
Kyle Odister is the most consistent outside shooter in the Mustangs’ starting lineup at 31.9 percent, and the senior guard knows Cal Poly must improve its scoring output to turn its fortunes around in conference play.
“If you make baskets, you’re going to win games overall,” Odister said. “Score more points than the other teams.”
Some of that may come with just being back in San Luis Obispo. The Mustangs have played just four home games this season, but three of their first four conference games come at MAC, and the fourth is a Saturday afternoon trip to UC Santa Barbara.
“It’s always great to come back home,” sophomore center Brian Bennett said. “I think we’ve been gone for 22 days or something like that.
“I don’t know if it’s going to come easier, but everyone’s a little more comfortable. We shoot here year-round, so, we know what to expect.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Hawaii has only left the islands for two games this season.
The Warriors’ outstanding nonconference record could be belittled by their lack of road tests, but they do claim quality victories over Oregon State and Saint Mary’s.
There is, however, Hawaii’s questionable history against Cal Poly, which has been a tough hurdle over the past few years.
The Mustangs own a four-game winning streak over the Warriors, including two meetings at MAC, a one-point squeaker in 2009-10 and an 88-59 blowout last season.
Hawaii seems much improved with the addition of former San Jose State transfer Keith Shamburger (9.9 points per game, 4.9 assists) and the development of big men Christian Standhardinger (17.8 ppg, 7.4 rebounds per game) and Isaac Fotu (13.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), but the nonconference records might not have much bearing on the conference matchups, especially, Callero said, if Cal Poly can capitalize on the lessons learned from tough losses.
“They’ve had a bunch of home games,” Callero said. “At the same time, we’ve learned a lot by going on the road.
“Isn’t it nice to have a lot more home games, a lot more momentum going into it? Yeah, but sometimes it’s to learn a lot more about your team.”