In the more than two decades Rusty Blair has spent coaching the Cuesta College men’s basketball team, few seasons, if any, have featured a nonconference schedule more challenging than the 2015 version.
The Cougars are coming off their seventh Western State Conference title in the last 10 years, fielding a veteran roster made up of players from eight countries. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Blair draws a comparison to the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs when discussing the team’s offensive identity.
The combination of constant ball movement, above average perimeter shooting and a dominant presence in the paint has helped Cuesta win 13 of its first 19 games this season. Of the six losses, four have come against teams ranked in the top 10 of the state’s Massey Ratings, and three of those were decided by two pointers or fewer.
“They have to learn on the fly, so to speak,” said Blair, a six-time conference coach of the year honoree. “They’ve had to learn on their own, and by the time we get to league, they know what to expect.”
For the fifth straight season, the Cougars open conference play against Ventura at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Blair said Cuesta has beaten the Pirates in each of the last five meetings, noting there is always a strong crowd and “good basketball environment” at the Athletic Events Center.
Freshman guard Karem Ozel, the Cougars’ leading scorer at 13.3 points per game, will be one of several key players making their first trip through the Western State Conference. Sophomore center Roberto Mantovani, who transferred from Division II Benedict College in South Carolina, has exceeded expectations so far this season.
The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Cyprus native averages 13 points, 9.3 rebounds and two assists per game and provides Cuesta with an inside presence rarely seen in Blair’s tenure. The longtime head coach said Mantovani is one of the best interior players he’s coached in 24 years with the Cougars.
“Now we can actually go inside,” Blair said. “He creates a hard matchup when you’ve got a beast inside and shooters outside.”
Ventura (10-6) is coming off an 88-84 overtime win against Riverside, its sixth victory in the past seven games. Standout guard Elijah Brown scored 24 points that night on 16-for-17 shooting from the free-throw line. In the last two games, Brown has made his way to the free-throw line 38 times and made 34 of those attempts.
“We have to make him shoot that perimeter shot,” Blair said.
Here’s a look at the other six teams in the Western State Conference:
The Raiders are rolling into conference play as hot as any team in the state. Moorpark went undefeated in seven December games — its longest winning streak in a decade — and won two tournaments for the first time since the 2000-01 season. Sophomore guard Larry Bush averages a team-high 15.4 points per game as one of five Raiders scoring more than 11 points per contest.
With nine sophomores on the roster, the Pirates are well on their way to avenging last year’s 11-17 campaign. Sophomore guard Elijah Brown is among the conference scoring leaders at nearly 19 points per game. During Ventura’s current run of six wins in seven games, Brown has scored at least 21 points four times.
The Condors reinstated men’s and women’s basketball last year, leading to a trying 4-18 season for the men under head coach Ron McClurkin. More is expected from Oxnard this winter, particularly from sophomore DeSean Scott. The 6-foot-6 small forward from Arroyo Grande ranks fourth in the state in scoring at 22.9 points per game and sixth in rebounding at 10.3 per contest.
Allan Hancock (8-9)
One of three teams to finish 9-3 in the Western State Conference last season, the Bulldogs are backing into conference play having lost four of their past five games. Three players average double-digit scoring, including Arroyo Grande graduate Matt Willkomm at more than 13 points per game. The 6-foot-1 guard was a first-team all-conference selection as a freshman and is one of only two sophomores on Allan Hancock’s roster.
LA Pierce (7-10)
The Bulls apparently experienced some mid-season roster turnover. Jordan Brown, who scored 41 points in LA Pierce’s season opener, played only three games and has since been removed from the roster. Sophomores Montel Shirley and Kenny Stenhouse have helped keep LA Pierce on track by combining for more than 32 points and 14 rebounds per contest.
Santa Barbara (5-9)
Having revamped their roster, the Vaqueros seem ready to move past last year’s 4-20 campaign that included 16 consecutive losses to end the season. Santa Barbara snapped a three-game losing streak last week with a 70-62 victory over Long Beach, thanks in part to 17 second-half points from Robert Hutchins.