Noted for a grueling preseason conditioning program, Cuesta College men’s basketball coach Rusty Blair and the Cougars are typically meticulously prepared for the start of the season.
It’s one reason Cuesta is accustomed to hot starts in its annual season-opening event, but the first round of the 45th Annual Rabobank Basketball Tournament is set to tip off today at Cuesta with the Cougars still in a state of disarray.
The team has potential, Blair said, but in the wake of some significant preseason injuries, it has to come together.
“Knowing our track record in this tourney and how we start early, we have to be the favorite,” Blair said, “but it’s going to be a different feeling than other years.
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“I do see a very good team in the making, it’s just about getting all the components back.”
Three of Cuesta’s returning projected starters are on the shelf. Forward Khirey Carson, who averaged 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds last season, has a knee injury. A center coming off a season in which he averaged 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds, Mohamed Ali Ben Ammar has a shoulder injury, and forward Dmitri Utolin, potentially the most improved player from last season, is out with an ankle injury.
All three are expected to make it back this season, but the Cougars will be in scramble mode as they await their returns.
Cuesta hosts West Valley tonight at 8 p.m. in the three-day, double-elimination tournament, one the Cougars won to open what finished as a 16-10 record last season.
Swingman Oscar Pedroso helped Cuesta get to the postseason, where the Cougars lost their playoff opener, with 15.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, and the Portugal native figures to be a key contributor again this season.
Pedroso racked up a team-leading 50 steals, and his 162 free-throw attempts ranked among the state’s leaders. Though he showed a knack for getting to the rim, Blair said he would like Pedroso to use his outside shot more.
That would certainly make him a dangerous complement to freshman guard Alex Igual.
A member of the Spanish junior national team, Igual is almost certain to start on the wing after being referred to Cuesta by former Cougars standout and fellow Spaniard Roger Guardia.
“I potentially have a 2-3 combination there that could be one of the top in the state,” Blair said of the Pedroso-Igual tandem. “Once we knew who Alex Igual was, we went, ‘Whoa.’ He’s here playing full-bore.”
Sophomore Ellis Gibson — a Bakersfield Stockdale High product and one of just five American-born players on the roster — is set to start at point guard but is getting competition from freshmen Valentin Bauer and Lemar Young.
As the others are on the mend, two more freshmen are stepping into starting roles.
Bridgeport, Conn., transplant Kyle Geer will be an undersized power forward at 6-foot-4 but when others return, he could have an impact on the wing as well.
Down low, 6-6 Belgium native Brett Harshorne will start at center. Like Blair, Hartshorne’s father played at Oregon before playing professionally overseas.
Facing outside competition for the first time will provide an intriguing challenge to the undermanned Cougars.
“I’m just going to see how well we’re doing executing our Xs and Os out there,” Blair said, “and more importantly, how well our individual skills are because we’re going to be playing a different type of player on the floor.”