UC Santa Barbara will find an almost completely different Cal Poly men’s basketball team when the Gauchos come to Mott Athletics Center looking for revenge tonight at 7.
The Mustangs’ loss of several key players from the team that crushed the Gauchos in the Big West Tournament caused a seismic shift on individual roles. Plus, head coach Joe Callero’s theme coming into the season has been stressing a distancing of emotions from last year’s improbable run to the NCAA Tournament.
But don’t expect UC Santa Barbara (7-7) to have moved on from a humbling 69-38 loss to Cal Poly in the opening round of the conference tournament. Reigning Big West MVP Alan Williams went out in frustrating fashion, but he is back and playing as effectively as ever.
The Mustangs (8-5, 1-0 Big West) have to be ready to match the potential energy of a Blue-Green rival with something to prove.
“I’m sure they’ll come in motivated,” Cal Poly junior guard Reese Morgan said. “We’re just going to try and come out and play our game. We know they’re going to come out firing. We have to be ready, counter any punches they have and not get too hyped knowing that that can be a trap, too, of getting too pumped up in our first Big West home game.”
Morgan has become one of Cal Poly’s new standouts in the jumbling of responsibilities following the graduation of Big West Tournament MVP Chris Eversley and guards Kyle Odister and Jamal Johnson.
The former Parade All-American has been severely limited by chronic knee injuries his first three years on campus but has come off the bench this season to average 20.2 minutes per game and ranks third on the team with 10.5 points per game.
While Morgan has perhaps caught some teams off guard, the Gauchos should be very familiar with his game. Two seasons ago, Morgan scored a career-high 26 points and hit seven 3-pointers in a Cal Poly loss at the Thunderdome.
After sitting out most of last season, Morgan came in to hit three 3-pointers and played a crucial role in the Mustangs’ First Four victory over Texas Southern.
This year, performances like Wednesday’s 61-57 overtime victory over Hawaii have become more of the norm for Morgan. In that game, Morgan hit the game-winning 3-pointer with seven seconds left in overtime and finished with 17 points.
“Reese stepping up playing a little bit more minutes than last year and the year before is huge,” junior center Brian Bennett said. “Coming into the season, he knew that’s what he had to do to help the team out.”
“Losing three seniors last year, people just had to realize our team is going to be a different team. Every team has to find their own identity, and in preseason, we really found our identity. Everyone on the team knows their role, and we all just work 100 percent hard all the time.”
Among those changed roles, Bennett has become a stalwart in the post in the wake of Zach Gordon’s season-ending knee injury over the summer.
Bennett has taken over the load down low and is averaging a career-high 12.2 points per game, up from 6.1 last season.
Junior forward David Nwaba has taken the torch from Eversley as the team’s leading scorer, upping his scoring output to 14.1 points per game after ranking second behind Eversley with 11.7 last season.
Though Bennett attributed the increased productivity to 100 percent effort, it might be hard to believe Cal Poly’s 100 percent could equal the Gauchos today.
UC Santa Barbara is fully rested, and having been idle since Monday, the Gauchos have had most of the week to concentrate on scouting.
The Mustangs had a grueling 10 hours of flight time to and from Hawaii in addition to the drive down and up to the airport in Los Angeles.
After Wednesday’s overtime win, Cal Poly didn’t arrive back on campus until late Thursday. “We’re all very tired,” Callero said. “I’m tired, I know the players are tired, but I know for sure that won’t be the excuse” today.
No. Should the Mustangs fall, the reason will likely be Williams.
The big man has already been the conference player of the week three times. He’s earned national-player-of-the-year consideration and was featured recently by Sports Illustrated — all while averaging 18.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocked shots, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals.
Cal Poly, meanwhile, leads the nation in fewest turnovers, averaging 9.2 per game. It’s a statistic the Mustangs have been able to hang their hat on all season, but they’ve also displayed an upgrade in an attribute that won’t show up in the score sheet.
On display during a shoving incident that resulted in a double technical Wednesday at Hawaii, Cal Poly is showing intangible scrappiness. That could also be key in an emotional rivalry matchup.
“There’s definitely times last year where we lacked that,” Morgan said. “We lacked sometimes a little bit of fire. So far this year, it’s been better. You have to play with pride and toughness if you’re going to win, especially conference games against a good team.
“If we continue to play with that, we give ourselves a good chance of winning any game.”