When evaluating this year’s Cal Poly men’s basketball team, two things stood out to head coach Joe Callero.
The Mustangs, who return three starters and their top five scorers from last season, have enough backcourt depth to push the tempo on a consistent basis and “six or seven players capable of hitting threes on the perimeter.”
That hasn’t always been the case in Callero’s first six years at Cal Poly.
While the Mustangs have led the Big West Conference in scoring defense for five straight seasons, they’ve also been the lowest-scoring team in the league for three of those years.
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When Cal Poly made an unexpected run through the Big West tournament in 2014 and earned an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, the team averaged less than 62 points in 16 conference games. That number dipped to 59 last season, when the Mustangs finished 13-16 overall and 6-10 against Big West opponents for the second year in a row.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s probably the most talented that the team’s been,” said senior guard Reese Morgan, who averaged 10 points per game last winter. “Hopefully we can put that together and get some wins, but I’m really excited for the prospects of what this team can do this year.”
Cal Poly’s top four returning scorers are all seniors, including 6-foot-9 forward Brian Bennett, who averaged a team-high 11.5 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior last season. Callero said Bennett, a second-team all-Big West performer, has dealt with some minor injuries during the preseason and his presence will be key throughout a challenging nonconference schedule.
Senior guard David Nwaba returns to the backcourt after averaging 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game last year. Senior forward Joel Awich brings back 8.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. Having played in 86 career games at Cal Poly, the 6-foot-7 Awich ranks third in program history with 86 blocked shots and is 51 away from becoming the Mustangs’ all-time leader in that category.
Three true freshmen were brought into the fold during the offseason in guards Jaylen Shead from Pflugerville, Texas; Serigne Athj from Pasadena; and 6-foot-10 forward Hank Hollingsworth. Callero said Hollingsworth, a Chelan, Wash., native, will redshirt this season given the veteran frontcourt depth ahead of him.
The coaching staff will make a decision about the other two true freshmen following the team’s 7 p.m. scrimmage Thursday against Cal State San Bernardino at Mott Athletic Center.
“We have a lot to prove from last year, we have a lot to prove from this summer, we have a lot to prove from this fall,” Callero said. “The good news is, now it’s time to prove.”
Cal Poly’s 29-game regular season schedule starts in earnest Nov. 13 on the road against UNLV. The Rebels feature one of the top players in the country in 7-foot freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr., who was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas.
As Callero has done throughout his coaching career, he has worked to fill the Mustangs’ nonconference schedule with marquee matchups this season. Two days after UNLV, the team plays UCLA at Pauley Pavilion and will host a talented Fresno State team the first week of December. Cal Poly also will play Saint Mary’s, USC and Texas A&M before opening its Big West schedule Jan. 6 against Hawaii.
“I wish there was more on the schedule,” Nwaba said. “But I feel like we have a good schedule, and it’s a time to show everybody what we’re capable of doing and hopefully just get a couple upsets and put our name on the map.”
Junior guard Ridge Shipley returns after averaging 8.4 points in 27 games as a sophomore. And fellow junior Zach Gordon is back in the mix following a preseason injury that forced him to redshirt last year. Sophomore Taylor Sutlive, one of Cal Poly’s more talented 3-point shooters, also is coming off a redshirt year stemming from a preseason injury.
Redshirt freshman Trevor John proved to be a capable scorer during the Mustangs’ three-game exhibition tour of France over the summer, leading Callero to say he “might be as good a shooter as we’ve ever had here.”
The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 16 points per game and made 13 3-pointers in France, helping Cal Poly win each of its exhibition games.
Morgan said going on the international trip — something the NCAA allows once every four years — was an eye-opening experience. The Mustangs visited the coast of Normandy, among other historic locations, which Morgan said was “unbelievably humbling.”
“It kind of helps you grow up,” he added, “and realize there’s a lot more to life in the world other than SLO.”
The 10 additional practices were equally valuable for a team picked to finish sixth in the Big West preseason media poll. UC Irvine was the clear favorite, though UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly each received two first-place votes.
Having spent most of the summer and fall beating up on each other in practice, Callero and Morgan agreed seeing a different opponent Thursday night will be a welcomed challenge.
“I think that at this point we’re getting a little tired of each other and tired of my voice,” Callero said. “We need to play somebody else, it’s just that time of year.”
Cal Poly men’s basketball
Head coach: Joe Callero (seventh season)
2014-15 record: 13-16 overall, 6-10 Big West
Top returner: Senior forward Brian Bennett (11.5 points, 6.3 rebounds)
Home opener: Nov. 18 vs. Cal State Monterey Bay