It’s clear to see now. When Kyle Odister’s broken foot took a turn for the worse, so did the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s season.
Since Odister was removed from the starting lineup in late January, the Mustangs’ senior guard and 3-point specialist has played only sporadically, and the outcomes of games have largely depended on the rest of the roster’s success shooting from long range.
And as Cal Poly (10-18, 6-9 Big West Conference) has been inconsistent, the losses have piled up in the past month, making 3-point shooting the area to watch heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale at Mott Athletics Center against rival UC Santa Barbara.
“Defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball keep you close in every game,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “We’ve been close every game, but the struggles have all been shooting the basketball. It’s the X factor.
“It’s ridiculously all about us because if we’re healthy, everything changes.”
The evidence definitely supports that conclusion.
The Mustangs are playing good defense. They lead the conference and rank 46th nationally allowing 64.4 points per game. They’re averaging fewer than 9.4 turnovers per game, and their rebound totals have improved since a switch to a man-to-man as their primary defense.
In the games he has played, Odister ranks fourth in the Big West with 2.32 3-pointers per game and ninth shooting 35.4 percent from 3-point range.
With the career 38.8 percent 3-point shooter, Cal Poly was forcing opposing defenses to respect him as a threat.
The Mustangs opened conference play 3-0 and were a buzzer-beating miss away from starting 5-0 in the Big West.
One of those victories included a comfortable 72-64 victory over the Gauchos in Santa Barbara where Cal Poly teamed to shoot 11 of 18 on 3s.
Then Odister left the lineup with a stress fracture, and things haven’t been the same since.
The Mustangs have changed starting lineups five times since then, losing eight of the past 10 games and falling from first to sixth in the conference standings.
With the Big West Tournament looming next week, Saturday’s game still holds plenty of significance. Depending on the outcome, Cal Poly can finish anywhere between fifth and eighth with a seed in the three-day tournament to match.
Odister has been cleared to play and plans to start his final home game, and Callero is confident he will have both Odister and sophomore sharpshooter Reese Morgan available for the Big West Tournament, which combined with the late-season emergence of Michael Bolden, provides a respectable outside threat.
To Callero, the Mustangs could have allowed Odister to play more through his injury and may have won more games because of it, but he put a bigger premium on having his roster positioned for the postseason rather than Cal Poly’s résumé.
Resting Odister theoretically gives him a better chance to succeed when it matters most.
“I don’t care if we’re the eight seed,” Callero said. “You want to go to Anaheim as the eight seed with Kyle or would you rather go as the four seed without Kyle? If you’re in a tournament, you have to beat somebody really good. You have to win three games. It doesn’t matter which order.”
Though players said you can expect them to fight hard for a victory Saturday, they agreed the seed was of little importance.
“We look at the parity in the conference this year,” senior forward and leading scorer Chris Eversley said. “You have teams knock off teams. It’s the Wild West. The seeding doesn’t really matter when you get down to it.”
The bigger motivator is ending the season at home against what has been the bitterest of rivals.
Knowing the history of the Blue-Green rivalry, which has included its share of tense moments on the court as well as the soccer pitch, interest in the game began early.
Eversley said word came that general admission seats were approaching sellout totals Monday.
“I wouldn’t want to have it any other way than playing those guys,” Eversley said. “Senior night against Santa Barbara at home, you can’t beat that. I couldn’t have planned this, coach couldn’t have planned this any better when they were doing the schedule before the season.”
For Cal Poly sophomore forward David Nwaba, the rivalry is a family affair.
Nwaba’s older sister Barbara is an elite American heptathlete and competed collegiately for the Gauchos.
David Nwaba said there is no sibling rivalry between the two when it comes to college allegiances.
He supported her when she was on the UC Santa Barbara track and field team. Now, it’s his turn.
“She’s on my side,” Nwaba said. “She’s actually going to be at the game. She’s a Cal Poly fan.”