Cuesta College men’s basketball coach Rusty Blair completed his 25th season leading the Cougars this winter, a stretch that spans longer than the lifetime of his players most years.
It would be an understatement to say Blair, a seven-time Western State Conference Coach of the Year, has the ability to extract every bit of talent from his rosters that generally experience large turnover each offseason.
Yet, even with Blair’s deep bag of coaching tricks, the Cougars never quite found their footing throughout an up-and-down 2016-17 season. Cuesta posted a 13-15 overall record — its fewest wins since 2011 — and did not qualify for the California Community College Athletics Association playoffs for the first time in five years.
“For me, any time you’re 13-15, that’d be almost like a disastrous feeling,” said Blair, who has averaged more than 20 wins and won four conference championships since 2010. “But in this case, it might be different if you know the talent we had, or the lack of talent we had, having to work with these kids day in and day out.
“Really, we probably overachieved.”
Freshman forward Noah Saunders emerged as one of the individual bright spots for a Cuesta team that still managed to finish second in the Western State Conference North Division standings at 6-4, two games back of conference champion Ventura.
The 6-foot-6, 185-pound Saunders was a first-team all-conference performer, averaging 15.6 points on 55.4-percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds during conference play.
Saunders, who was at his best during a 29-point, 12-rebound performance in a win over Santa Barbara, is a natural small forward who was pressed into a low-post role given the Cougars’ limited options at the position.
“To have that kind of season coming in as a freshman was encouraging,” Blair said. “Obviously, he needs to put on weight and get stronger. He’s really a three, a wing player. But he’s got such great hops that I had to use him around the basket.”
Sophomore guard Andres Aguado joined Saunders on the first-team all-Western State Conference squad following another strong season shooting from the perimeter. A native of Malaga, Spain, Aguado led the Cougars with 62 made 3-pointers, the fifth-highest total in the conference. He averaged 12.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for the season.
Sophomore Alex Ouandie, an intriguing 6-7, 215-pound forward, added 12.5 points and 5.3 rebounds, and sophomore point guard Kerem Özel played through an ankle injury to finish the year averaging 12.0 points and a team-high 3.9 assists per contest. Özel received honorable mention recognition for the second straight season.
“From a scoring standpoint we were a balanced team,” Blair said. “But we really didn’t have a go-to guy that we could go to down the stretch. Most teams did.”
Blair said he and the coaching staff will begin the offseason evaluation process this week, knowing they’ll have to replace the six departing sophomores and perhaps a few freshmen who won’t be returning for next season. He believes several of the sophomores, including athletic guard Donovin Townsend, will have an opportunity to continue playing at a four-year school.
“I don’t think it’s going to be at the Division I level,” Blair added. “… But they’re going to end up somewhere. They’re probably going to get their education paid for, but it’s not going to be a quick process.”
One bit of silver lining from a season that didn’t meet Cuesta’s standards in terms of wins and losses, Blair said, was the Cougars’ effort in the classroom. Cuesta posted a cumulative 3.2 GPA and had eight players receive all-academic recognition, which Blair called “our top academic year.”
“If you look at everything overall,” Blair continued, “you can’t be dissatisfied even though the win-loss record is not something that we’re proud of.”
Cuesta College men’s basketball year-in-review
Record: 13-15 overall, 6-4 Western State Conference
All-conference selections: F Noah Saunders, G Andres Agaudo, G Kerem Özel
Noteworthy: The Cougars posted a combined 3.2 GPA and had eight players earn all-academic honors