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If ever there was a time for clichés, it would be Friday for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team.
Entering the Big West Conference Tournament more than one week ago, Cal Poly was a measly No. 7 seed looking to make a splash by beating rival UC Santa Barbara in the opening round of the conference tournament.
… We get hit in the mouth, you have to love the blood because we have to compete at the highest level we ever dreamed of to shock the world.
Now, after an improbable run that saw the Mustangs blow out the Gauchos, take down No. 1 seed UC Irvine and win the Big West tourney a night later to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history — and win its first game against Texas Southern — the Mustangs have a chance to take down Goliath.
Cal Poly, the only team in this year’s tournament to have a losing record (14-19), will be billed the underdog as it takes on the nation’s only undefeated team, Wichita State (34-0), in the Round of 64 in St. Louis, Mo. on Friday. The No. 16 Mustangs and No. 1 Shockers will tip off at 4:10 p.m. PST in the second round of the Midwest Regional at Scottrade Center.
“Of course, I saw (Wichita State) last year in the tournament and so forth, and you hear the stories about their defense, passing, rebounding, teamwork and you go, ‘Wow,’” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “Then you watch on film and you go, ‘Oh, man, it’s all true.’ That was the disappointing part, that they are as good as it sounds.”
History won’t be on Cal Poly’s side. Since the tournament expanded to a 64-team field in 1985, 16-seeds have gone 0-117 all-time against their No. 1 counterparts.
But Cal Poly has a hot hand of late, as the Mustangs have rattled off four straight wins — their longest win streak of the season — following their conference championship and a 81-69 win against their fellow 16-seeded Tigers in Wednesday’s First Four matchup in Dayton, Ohio.
Senior forward Chris Eversley led Cal Poly with 19 points as the Mustangs got their first Division I postseason victory in the win, while sophomore wing David Nwaba added 17 points and Brian Bennett scored 10. In all, 10 different Mustangs got on the scoresheet to help Cal Poly to a season-high 56.9 shooting percentage from the floor.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Eversley said of the last few days in the tournament. “If I used one word it would be ‘pandemonium’ from the standpoint of my personal social circle, to hearing about the city of San Luis Obispo going crazy and everybody having viewing parties. It has been insane.”
Wichita State enters as the first program since UNLV in 1991 to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated. Senior Cleanthony Early leads the Shockers averaging 15.8 points per game, while Missouri Valley Conference MVP Fred VanVleet averages 12.1 points, 5.3 assists and a 44.7 percentage mark from 3-point land.
“You know, they are a good team,” senior guard Jamal Johnson said. “They don’t go undefeated in a season for no reason. And, you know, we just happened to catch fire at the right time … At the beginning of the season we struggled a little bit, but now that we are all shooting the right shots, I think there’s no reason why we can’t win.”
Cal Poly’s strength lies in its ability to take care of the ball. The Mustangs rank fifth among Division I programs — averaging just nine turnovers per contest — and are 37th nationally, allowing 63.6 points per game.
The Mustangs will likely have to get hot from beyond the arc as they did in their upset of then-No. 11 UCLA last season to pull off the shocker.
“We experienced (an upset) a little bit last year when we got the chance to go down and play UCLA and were able to take them down at their place,” Eversley said.
The winner of Friday’s contest will face either eighth-seeded Kentucky (24-10) or No. 9 Kansas State (20-12) on Sunday.
“It doesn’t help to be our fifth game in eight days, but it certainly is going to keep us in that competitive mode that, you know, we have to love the blood,” Callero said. “Our thing, we get hit in the mouth, you have to love the blood because we have to compete at the highest level we ever dreamed of to shock the world.”
Follow along live on Twitter @CPMustangSports and check MustangNews.net for the latest coverage, photos and more from Cal Poly’s run in the big dance. The game will also be televised live on CBS and streaming video will be available at ncaa.com/marchmadness.