For a team making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament and the media whirlwind that comes with owning 19 losses and a spot in the second round, coach Joe Callero and the Cal Poly men’s basketball team are handling the spotlight like seasoned veterans.
Callero joked and jabbed with Jim Rome, ribbing the CBS talking head — and UC Santa Barbara graduate — on his nationally syndicated radio show Thursday for the stunning blowout the Mustangs laid on the Gauchos in the opening round of the Big West Conference Tournament.
“I know you’re a Gaucho, so it’s been a tough week watching how we’ve ascended the Big West ladder,” Callero quipped, sounding like a weekly regular rather than the coach of a little known team from a lesser known town.
That is, before an improbable four-game win streak resulted in national attention, a spot on Twitter’s trending topics and a date with history.
“It’s been straight pandemonium, to describe it,” senior forward Chris Eversley said. “It’s been hectic.”
It could be that few picked then-10-19 Cal Poly to win the Big West Tournament or that fewer are picking it to be the first 16 seed to dethrone a No. 1, but the Mustangs are as relaxed and undaunted heading into today’s Midwest Regional matchup against undefeated Wichita State in St. Louis as if they were back at Sunday’s selection party at Firestone Grill.
“To be a team with the record we have and catch fire the way we have,” senior guard Jamal Johnson said, “and then to end up playing the team with the best record in the country, that makes for a good story.
“We’re just going to enjoy the moment and not be stressed about it. Basketball is fun; not many people get the chance to do what we’re doing. We’re going to enjoy this.”
Eversley said the team’s loose demeanor and optimistic outlook comes from Callero, who keeps things light and in perspective.
“He has a great sense of humor and knows you can never take yourself too seriously,” Eversley said. “I mean, we’re playing basketball while there are people out there doing things that are much more important.
“He exemplifies the way to compartmentalize your life.”
The Mustangs, winners of four straight, shot a season-best 56.9 percent from the floor in their 81-69 victory over Texas Southern in Wednesday’s First Four game in Dayton, Ohio.
The increased offensive efficiency — and victories that came with it — comes back to Callero, Johnson said.
“He’s a cerebral kind of guy and very meticulous … and it resonates with the rest of the team,” Johnson said. “He’s not going to let up if we were 34-0 or 0-34.”
Interestingly enough, Cal Poly’s next opponent sits at one of those marks.
Defined as a mid-major because they don’t play in a “power” conference, the Shockers (34-0) possess the all-around talent traditionally reserved for programs with budgets twice the size of the school from southern Kansas.
Four players average in double figures, led by forward Cleanthony Early, the main component of last season’s Final Four team who returned as a senior to post team highs in scoring (15.8 points per game) and rebounds (5.9). He can use his 6-foot-8 frame to bang down low, but also is Wichita State’s second-best 3-point shooter.
“He’s a solid inside-out guy — we call them 50/50s — that picks his spots and shoots the ball well,” said Eversley, who is a similar-style forward for the Mustangs at 13.7 points and 7.2 boards per game. “He happens to be a guy that scores, but that whole team runs like a well-oiled machine.”
The main threat behind the arc is Ron Baker, who made only four more 3s than Early but can make shots from anywhere inside half-court and is the Shockers’ second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game.
Baker and fellow guard Tekele Cotton (10.8 points per game) join Early as the three returning starters from last year’s team that fell just four points short to eventual champion Louisville.
Although he came off the bench last season, point guard Fred VanVleet might be Wichita State’s most complete player — and its biggest weapon.
The 5-foot-11 sophomore, who was named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, averages 12.1 points, 5.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game while playing a team-high 31.7 minutes per night.
But where VanVleet has improved the most from last year is his shooting. He is making nearly half of his field goals (49.6 percent) after shooting 38.6 as a freshman, and he has upped his free-throw percentage from 72.5 to 82.4. He doesn’t take many 3s, but makes them count when he does, hitting at a 44.7-percent rate.
“He was the conference MVP for a reason,” Callero said. “You don’t stop him; you just hope to make the game more difficult for him. It’s not a one-man team, but he’s the head of the snake.”
Gregg Marshall is a candidate for national coach of the year, and Wichita State is looking to become the first Division I men’s team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated en route to a national championship.
“The biggest compliment I can give them is that I’d like to build our program in the light of what we see in Wichita State,” Callero said. “They are very good at every position, and they have outstanding guys throughout the program. It’s a great blueprint for success.”
In their pre-practice news conference Thursday in St. Louis, the vast majority of the questions asked to Marshall and his players centered around the expectations of being an undefeated top seed compared to last year’s Cinderella.
But when asked about Cal Poly, Marshall did not dismiss the 16-point underdogs.
“They have a lot of weapons … and they play good defense,” Marshall said. “They’re not really trying to turn you over, but they’re playing underneath you and making you shoot over the top.”
Marshall added the Mustangs are “very similar to Missouri State,” the only team to take the Shockers into overtime, where Wichita State prevailed 72-69 on Jan. 11.
The other 33 victories came by an average of 16 points, but as Callero pointed out to Rome and his players echoed later, none of those games matter come today at 4:10 p.m. on the West Coast.
All it takes is 40 more minutes in what’s already been a postseason San Luis Obispo won’t soon forget.
“I’m always the calm one,” Johnson said, “but at the same time, in a moment like this that you don’t get many of in your life, it’s going to get emotional.”