Two months into the college basketball season, teams around the country get to press the proverbial reset button this week as conference play begins.
For the Cal Poly men’s basketball team and seventh-year head coach Joe Callero, that means moving on from an up-and-down nonconference schedule and shifting focus to the 16 Big West Conference games remaining.
“You don’t get to take any of your preseason victories with you,” Callero said, “and they don’t give you any preseason losses.”
The Mustangs (6-7) hope to get back on track during their conference opener at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Hawaii inside the Stan Sheriff Center. Cal Poly went 2-5 in December, including a 1-4 mark during the team’s current six-game road trip that featured losses at Saint Mary’s, USC and No. 19-ranked Texas A&M.
It won’t get any easier this week against the high-scoring Rainbow Warriors (11-2) and first-year head coach Eran Ganot. Hawaii is well on its way to a third consecutive 20-win season and leads the Big West in several statistical categories, including field-goal percentage (47.8 percent), rebounding (38.5 per game), assists (16.9 per game), steals (8.8 per game) and scoring (81 per game).
“The No. 1 thing for us to have a chance to beat Hawaii is (having) anywhere from 11 or under turnovers,” Callero said. “They pressure and trap and gamble and lunge and double and hold. They’re the most aggressive team in the conference by far.”
That could make things interesting for a Cal Poly team dealing with a series of key injuries. Regular starters Joel Awich, Brian Bennett and Ridge Shipley missed time in practice this week, Callero said, and it was unclear how limited each player would be against Hawaii.
Awich rolled his ankle against Texas A&M last week and has been in a walking boot since.
A nagging shoulder injury has slowed Bennett since the Dec. 17 game at USC.
Shipley broke his nose in practice and will require surgery on Friday. The junior point guard will likely have to wear a protective mask the remainder of the season.
Fortunately, Cal Poly currently has the depth to cope with potentially losing three starters right before the start of conference play. Callero said senior David Nwaba will handle more point guard duties, with fellow senior Reese Morgan moving into the starting lineup alongside Taylor Sutlive.
“We’re not in great shape,” Callero said, “but we’re certainly not reeling.”
Here’s a look at the other eight teams in the Big West Conference:
Under first-year head coach Eran Ganot, the Rainbow Warriors picked up right where they left off last season with four starters returning from a team that reached the championship game of the Big West Conference tournament. As the highest-scoring team in the Big West, Hawaii is 11-1 at home, with the lone loss coming against No. 2 Oklahoma. All-conference performer Aaron Valdes leads three players in double-digit scoring at 15.5 points per game.
UC Irvine (11-5)
The Anteaters are coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, where they nearly upset national power Louisville in the second round last year. There may not be a more recognizable player in the conference this season than Mamadou Ndiaye, the 7-foot-6, 300-pound center from Senegal. Two years removed from setting the Big West single-season record with 106 blocked shots, Ndiaye is leading UC Irvine in scoring (12.1), rebounding (7.3), field-goal percentage (66.4) and blocks (43).
UC Riverside (9-7)
Former Big West Conference Newcomer of the Year Jaylen Bland won’t be taking any team by surprise this winter. The 6-foo-3 senior guard is one of three players in the conference averaging more than 16 points per game. Forward Taylor Johns, a preseason player of the year candidate, missed five games but has contributed 14.5 points and a team-high 8.2 rebounds per game when available.
Cal State Fullerton (7-6)
After starting the season 7-1, the Titans didn’t have much luck in terms of wins and losses throughout December. Cal State Fullerton lost five consecutive games — two coming against Pac-12 opponents Washington and Oregon State — before rebounding with a rout of Cal State East Bay in its nonconference finale. Air Force transfer Tre’ Coggins has provided the Titans with immediate offense, averaging a team-high 16.3 points per contest. Pepperdine transfer Malcolm Brooks has been similarly productive for a new-look Titans team already close to matching last year’s 9-win season.
UC Santa Barbara (6-7)
Senior guard Michael Bryson has played like the two-time all-Big West performer he is this season. Leading the conference in scoring at 19.8 points per game, Bryson helped guide the Gauchos through a challenging nonconference schedule that included five opponents from the Pac-12. UC Santa Barbara went on the road to beat Washington in late December, and two days later Bryson made nine 3-pointers during a 36-point outburst against Seattle.
Long Beach State (6-9)
After losing all five starters from last year’s team that finished 16-17, the 49ers have turned to Maryland transfer Nick Faust — and he hasn’t disappointed. The 6-6, 210-pound guard is the third-leading scorer in the Big West and averages more than 15 points per game. It will be interesting to see how Long Beach State regroups for the start of Big West play after taking on a string of talented nonconference opponents in Oklahoma State, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona and Duke.
UC Davis (5-8)
The defending conference champions have gotten off to a slow start now that two-time Big West scoring champion Corey Hawkins has graduated. One year after winning the school’s first Big West title and a program-record 25 games, the Aggies have struggled to find their footing and lost six consecutive contests in December. Junior center Neal Monson averages 10 points and nearly nine rebounds per game for a UC Davis team that shoots better than 46 percent from the field.
The Matadors closed out nonconference play by winning three of their last five games. After missing the first month of the season, junior guard Kendall Smith has made an immediate impact by averaging 17 points in the five games he’s played. Smith and backcourt mate Michael Warren combined for 48 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists during CSUN’s win over Morgan State last weekend.