Credit: Kyle Calzia | Mustang News

Although Cal Poly Men’s Basketball has struggled to open up the 2020-21 season, there have been a few bright spots, one of which being the performance of the freshmen making their college debuts for the Mustangs.

Cal Poly currently has seven freshmen on the basketball roster. In most cases, these first-year players are eased into the rotation and do not play many minutes in their first few games. However, due to injuries and a smaller roster, head coach John Smith has given them valuable minutes.

According to Smith, this experience is important for first-year players and their development.

“They’ve been forced to get on the floor sooner than I expected, which bodes well for the future,” Smith said. “The experience that they’re getting right now is truly invaluable. We’re excited about the future, but right now we are trying to take it day by day and get better each game.”

Although most of the freshmen on the roster were not expected to have a big impact early in their careers, Smith mentioned that the plan for freshman point guard Camren Pierce was different.

“[Pierce] was brought in here as a point guard to build around for the future,” Smith said. “So we knew he was going to come in and play valuable minutes right away.”

Twelve games into the season, Pierce leads all freshmen in scoring at 5.8 points per game. Although Pierce has found success early on in the season, he said there are still some challenges adjusting to college-level basketball.

“I would say the biggest challenge for this year is playing back-to-back games on Fridays and Saturdays,” Pierce said. “The speed of the game and the size of the players are a lot different too compared to high school.”

Along with Pierce, Cal Poly has received important contributions from fellow freshmen Kobe Sanders and Dyson Koehler. Sanders has been a regular starter for the Mustangs and leads the team in three-point percentage at 38.2%, while Koehler leads the team in rebounds per game at 5.8 despite limited minutes off the bench.

Another freshman who has been a “great surprise” to the program according to Smith is freshman forward Brantly Stevenson, who leads all rookies in minutes played. Stevenson has also been forced to quickly adapt to this new level of play, saying that the game is “a lot more fast paced.”

Although there are many aspects of the game that these freshmen have been forced to adjust to faster than most, Smith said that they have handled the transition and the workload well.

“They’ve been grinding and learning the importance of how hard it is to play at this high level,” Smith said. “They need to learn how to adjust to each team’s game plan now that there’s film on them.”

The amount of freshmen in the rotation makes Cal Poly one of the youngest teams in the Big West. This also makes the Mustangs the most inexperienced squad in the conference. When there is this lack of experience, according to Stevenson, the “team chemistry isn’t always fully there.”

“Sometimes that poor chemistry causes us to play how we’ve been playing this season,” Stevenson said. “It’s definitely there, but we just have to keep working together as a team to get fully gelled.”

To help build that chemistry, the more seasoned players on the team have been mentoring the freshmen as they try to navigate through their first games of their college careers.

“There’s been a lot of mentoring with guys like Riley Till, Mark Crowe and Hank Hollingsworth.” Smith said. “They’ve taken these guys under their wings like little brothers and really helped them along this season.”

Both Pierce and Stevenson mentioned the impact that the older players have had on them since they arrived to camp last summer.

“[The older players] have taught me a lot, especially with guys like Riley who has played at the highest level of college basketball,” Pierce said. “That experience gives a lot of knowledge. Also, Keith Smith has played over 75 college games and learning from him has helped speed up the learning curve process.”

Stevenson highlighted the importance that the older players have had on his play on the court specifically.

“They help me mostly with my knowledge of the game,” Stevenson said. “I’m learning what plays and reads I need to make and how to succeed at this high level.”

To go along with the freshmen being thrown into action so early in their college careers, they have to deal with making their way through an unprecedented season due to COVID-19. According to Smith, these freshmen have been very impressive with their ability to push through this season so far.

“These guys have a great deal of resiliency with them being able to play in this season,” Smith said. “They have a demeanor in themselves that breeds success and I’m excited for where these guys are going and for where this program is going.”

Overall, Smith is impressed and excited with the way that the freshmen have played up to this point of the season and he believes that the program is in good hands going forward.

“This is a beautiful thing for the program,” Smith said. “We’re trying to build it up at a steady pace starting with these freshmen going forward.”

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