“Honestly, I have nothing against that team that I was on my freshman year, but you know, I see a lot more in this team,” senior guard Ridge Shipley said.
This is extremely high praise for a team with a 7-16 record, including only three wins since Dec. 10. However, Shipley could be onto something.
Shipley’s team from his freshman season in 2013-14 is the only team in Cal Poly history to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They did so in dramatic fashion after winning four straight games as the seventh seed in the Big West Conference Tournament following a mediocre 10-19 regular season performance.
Is it possible for this year’s Mustangs to run the table in the conference tournament and return to the big dance? Yes, but a detailed look at the numbers gives an idea of what the Mustangs need to change before the tournament to have a shot.
Points in the paint differential
If the Mustangs are going to be anything but a first-round out in the conference tournament, they need to play better in the post. When they lose, the Mustangs are outscored in the paint by an average of 6.69 points per game. When they win, they only outscore their opponents by an average of 1.71 points down low.
A possible explanation for this is the Mustangs’ lack of height in comparison to their competition. UC Irvine’s roster boasts four players measuring 6-foot-10 or taller, including 7-foot-2 center Ioannis Dimakopoulos.
By comparison, redshirt freshman forward Hank Hollingsworth is the only player on the Mustangs’ roster who stands over 6-foot-9. Hollingsworth currently only averages 8.5 minutes and 1.1 points per game. The large height differential between the two teams’ frontcourts makes it even more surprising that the Mustangs were able to outscore the Anteaters 36-24 in the paint on their way to victory at the Bren Events Center Jan. 26.
Despite their success against UC Irvine, the Mustangs’ lack of height prevents them from getting good offensive looks inside. This forces Cal Poly to stay out of the key and rely on their perimeter shooting.
The defense also suffers because of the missing strong interior presence. Other teams eventually force the ball into their post scorers, forcing the Mustangs to bring a defender off of a shooter to help double team low-post scorers. This has left the Mustangs’ defense vulnerable to shots from beyond the arc, and the data suggests opponents are taking advantage of it.
Second half three-point shooting and three-point defense
The Mustangs live and die by the three-point shot due to their lack of an interior presence. In the second half of games this year the Mustangs attempted 273 three-point shots, 91 more attempts than their opponents in the same frame.
Though they are a dismal 1-14 when their opponent shoots a higher percentage from deep after the break, the Mustangs are 6-2 when shooting an equal or higher percentage from three than their opponent in the second half.z
The Mustangs’ dependence on the three-point shot was on display again in their victory over UC Davis and their potential Conference Player of the Year, forward Chima Moneke. The Aggies and the Mustangs shot the same percentage from deep in the second half, but in that time the Mustangs attempted four more shots from long-range than the Aggies did. In both halves combined, the Mustangs attempted twice as many three-point shots as the Aggies.
Winning the three-point battle tests both the Mustangs’ offense and defense. Their opponents shoot an average of 40 percent from downtown in the second half while the Mustangs three-point percentage drops from 37 percent in the first half to 31 percent in the second.
“I know when you struggle as a team shooting from behind the arc then you kind of lose that edge on defense as well,” Shipley said. “It’s hard not to worry about shots going in. That’s just growth, though. We continue to get better at it.”
These second-half lapses have been insurmountable for the Mustangs, as they have lost nine games in which they had tied the game or taken the lead by halftime or later.
Can they fix it?
Head coach Joe Callero absolutely thinks so.
“We’re a little undersized team in comparison to most of our opponents and so I think we play very hard, but I do think fatigue has a tendency to catch us toward the end of games,” Callero said. “As we learn how to continue to handle that, I think that we have a good chance to finish out those games.”
If the Mustangs had been able to win half of those games they failed to close out in the second half, they would have a winning record instead of sitting at the bottom of the division.
While Callero said improved physical conditioning would play a role in overcoming some of the issues on defense, he feels that mental conditioning will be the most important factor for his team’s success in the Big West Tournament.
“We need to come very boringly consistent,” Callero said. “What we do is very effective, both offensively and defensively. Our success will be directly related to how long we can maintain our focus and concentration on all of the areas, not just one area.”
With their recent wins against UC Irvine and UC Davis, the Mustangs picked up their first conference wins of the season and proved they can compete with the best teams in the division.
“To go in there (to Irvine) and come out with a win was a big confidence boost,” senior forward Zach Gordon said. “I think the guys still have a lot of confidence. Obviously, this year hasn’t gone as well as we hoped it would. Same thing happened that year (in 2013-14). I think we ended up winning eight or nine games before we went into tournament play and then we won four straight.”
The gameplan for their win over the Anteaters could provide the Mustangs with the formula for success going forward. Cal Poly outscored UC Irvine 36-24 in the painted area and, while the Mustangs only shot 25 percent from long range in the second half, they held the Anteaters to a lowly 18 percent shooting from three-point range.
If the Mustangs are able to stop themselves from being bullied in the key, can stop the three-point shot and can shoot efficiently from beyond the arc, they will be able to compete with anyone in the division.
“Man, going into the tournament all I think about is winning it,” Shipley said. “I wouldn’t put anything against our team. I wouldn’t count us out for anything.”