Cal Poly

Cal Poly men's basketball seeking more magic at Big West Tournament

Joel Awich of Cal Poly shoots over CSUN’s Devonte Elliott during the Mustangs’ home win over the Matadors on Feb. 11.
Joel Awich of Cal Poly shoots over CSUN’s Devonte Elliott during the Mustangs’ home win over the Matadors on Feb. 11. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Cal Poly men’s basketball team had a home away from home during last year’s improbable run to the Big West Conference Tournament title, and it wasn’t the Mustangs’ team hotel.

No, each night of its campaign to become the first No. 7 seed to ever capture the crown, Cal Poly held court at ESPN Zone. The Downtown Disney restaurant was a short detour in the commute from Anaheim’s Honda Center to the Mustangs’ beds, but, head coach Joe Callero said, there is no better place for them to get into the spirit of March Madness.

“While you’re there eating having dinner, you get to watch all the other games,” Callero said. “There’s all the TVs going on. There’s an energy and an excitement about being in March. The thing that I think is critical is that we capture that. We don’t hide in the hotel room. We get out and about, and we enjoy the experience tremendously. … Not just because it’s fun, but it’s the part that gets us jazzed up for the next game.”

Cal Poly (13-15) is once again the seventh seed for the tournament — with an identical 6-10 Big West record as last season. Once again, the Mustangs will face second-seeded UC Santa Barbara (18-12, 11-5 Big West) on Thursday at 8:30 p.m., televised live on FSN Prime Ticket.

Not only will this be the 100th meeting between the Mustangs and Gauchos, the team Cal Poly has matched up with more than any other in Big West Tournament history, it’s also a rematch of the game that started it all last year.

The Mustangs were blown away by UC Santa Barbara in last year’s regular-season finale, then turned around and shocked the Gauchos by 31 points five days later. That was the first in a whirlwind five-game stretch where Cal Poly made its NCAA Tournament debut, won a First Four game and received some hearty coverage on CBS.

It seems only natural that the Mustangs would try to relive that run in every way possible, but ESPN Zone might be the extent of it.

Since this past Saturday’s 64-56 loss at UC Santa Barbara helped ensure the repeat first-round matchup, Callero has emphasized how different last year’s senior-led team is from one that many nights hasn’t had more than a single senior starter in the lineup.

Callero is much more concerned with his chess matches against Gauchos head coach Bob Williams this season, two losses where Cal Poly held late second-half leads but eventually couldn’t keep pace.

“This is not Bob Williams trying to move on from last year,” Callero said. “This is not Joe Callero trying to capitalize on last year. This is the fact that Santa Barbara has beat us twice. We need to learn from those two experiences. That’s where 75 percent of our knowledge is going to come.”

The other 25 percent, Callero said, will be in-game adjustments.

For the players who were around last year, there is no fear. No baskets will carry over from that run to the title, but the confidence sure does.

Callero wondered after the recent loss to the Gauchos whether that confidence trapped the Mustangs into thinking they could flip a tournament switch on command, a dangerous gamble.

But it also reinforces the idea that anything is possible.

“We know we were seventh last year,” said junior center Brian Bennett, a recent second-team all-Big West honoree. “We finished conference with the same record, but it doesn’t present any bigger of a challenge any game if we were seeded one through eight.”

That much is true. Any of the eight teams in the bracket will have to win three games in three days to win the tournament.

Cal Poly has had a pair of separate three-game win streaks this season, and, in one facet at least, Callero believes the Mustangs might be better positioned now than they have the past couple months because of their health.

Junior forward David Nwaba is all the way back from a viral infection and heart-health scare that kept him out most of February. Junior guard Reese Morgan is rested and healthy as can be for a chronic knee-pain sufferer. Even junior forward Joel Awich and senior guard Maliik Love were dogged by minor injuries late in the season. They appear to be back to full strength as well.

Cal Poly has lost four straight coming into the tournament. It’s the Mustangs’ longest skid of the season, but as they showed when they entered the postseason having lost nine of 11 last season, the slate is clean.

“That’s all behind us,” Callero said. “The best news is we do have the best chance that we’ve had in along time because we have a full arsenal of players.”

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