Coming off two physically and emotionally taxing home games last week, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team goes back on the road eager to make up some ground in the Big West Conference standings.
The Mustangs split with rival UC Santa Barbara (76-73 loss) and Long Beach State (96-92 victory in double overtime) in front of back-to-back sellout crowds inside Mott Athletics Center. It was the first time in head coach Joe Callero’s seven-year tenure Cal Poly sold out the arena for consecutive games.
Nearly 6,000 fans showed up for the Mustangs’ conference opener at Hawaii on Jan. 6, setting the tone for what has been an exciting season in the Big West to this point.
“We’re more used to big crowds, big arenas, big games, intense situations,” Callero said following Saturday’s win against the 49ers. “I think we’re maybe turning the corner a little bit for how to keep your poise down the stretch.”
When Cal Poly (7-9, 1-2 Big West) travels south to play Cal State Northridge at 7 p.m. Thursday, it’s unclear what kind of atmosphere will be waiting at the 1,600-seat Matadome. In six home games this season, the Matadors have averaged 949 fans per contest.
Despite having one of the top offensive players in the conference this season in UNLV transfer Kendall Smith, Cal State Northridge enters Thursday’s game last in the Big West standings at 6-12 overall and 1-3 against conference opponents.
Smith, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior guard, made his first appearance in a Matadors uniform Dec. 17, and he’s averaged 18.6 points in the nine games he’s played.
Michael Warren (14.3), Aaron Parks (12.0) and Tavrion Dawson (11.5) also average double-digit scoring for a Cal State Northridge team that ranks last in the Big West in 3-point shooting percentage.
“These are opportunities to make sure that wherever we’re playing, whatever the atmosphere is, that we’re at an emotional high,” Callero said, “and excited to kind of push into conference play and try to even up our conference record.”
Hawaii and UC Irvine, both 4-0, are the only unbeaten teams in the Big West. Long Beach State is 2-2, followed by Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis at 1-2 in conference play. UC Riverside and Cal State Northridge are both 1-3.
The Mustangs have won six of the last seven matchups with the Matadors and split last season’s series, losing 55-48 on the road. That was Cal Poly’s sixth loss in its last eight trips to the Matadome.
Senior forwards Joel Awich and Brian Bennett combined for 20 points and 17 rebounds during last year’s loss. Both players have been limited by injuries at times this season and the Mustangs haven’t had their two most physically imposing forwards healthy at the same at any point.
After suffering an ankle injury against Texas A&M in late December, Awich has come off the bench the past three games with mixed results. He made two clutch 3-pointers against UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State, but looked a step slower than usual while playing through pain.
Meanwhile, Bennett seems to be returning to form at just the right time. Lower body injuries prevented the 6-9 senior from practicing in the fall and he’s dealt with a nagging shoulder issue in recent weeks.
Bennett’s production has only gotten better as he’s gotten back into playing shape. He recorded the fourth double-double of his career against Long Beach State, scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the victory. It was the seventh time in the last eight games Bennett has scored in double figures.
“I feel solid,” Bennett said. “I feel like it’s just going to keep getting better and better.”