Cal Poly Men’s Basketball returned to the States with two wins and two losses following their 2019 Tour of London Sept. 1-9.
The trip not only kicked off the 2019 competitive schedule for the Mustangs, but served as John Smith’s inaugural set of games as Cal Poly Men’s Basketball head coach. The nine-day, four-game trip included games against three professional basketball teams from the British Basketball League (BBL) and National League Division 1. Comprised of 12 teams, the BBL is the top level of competition across England and Scotland.
Foreign tours are allowed once every fours years per NCAA regulation. And while the end goal of every game is to ultimately win, the tour offered a special opportunity for growth against top-level talent across London. However, for a program with three new coaches and six new players, the tour also provided a chance for trial and error.
“The way we went about [winning] was trying to see what we have,” Smith said. “But, I think we got better every single game and we learned a lot about our team.”
In total, Smith said he played 14 players and started a different lineup in almost every game.
“But, to play three pro teams and come away with two wins, I think that speaks volumes to where we have a chance to go,” Smith said.
The Mustangs collected their first win in a 81-69 victory against BBL member Surrey Scorchers. Junior forward Nolan Taylor recorded a team-high of 15 points en route to the opening victory. Freshman forward Alimamy Koroma secured a team-high eight rebounds for the Mustangs, while guards Keith Smith and Junior Ballard added 10 points each.
Cal Poly carried their winning momentum into the second game of the tour with a 75-61 victory over Barking Abbey Academy U-19s. Taylor notched a team-high for a second time with a performance of 13 points, while freshman guard Colby Rogers added 11 points in the win.
However, the second half of the London tour was not as fortunate for the Mustangs as they approached their biggest threat of the trip: defending BBL Champions London Lions.
“[London Lions] had about three guys on that team that probably could play in the NBA,” Smith said. “So we played some guys that had a great deal of experience and knew how to play with patience, knew how to play with physicality and through physicality.”
While Cal Poly dropped game three in a 89-71 loss to the Lions, Smith said the team learned a lot from the defeat.
Taylor, who spent last season as a redshirt due to NCAA transfer regulations, once again led the offensive output for the Mustangs. The graduate transfer led in scoring for the third consecutive game with a performance of 19 points and 12 rebounds.
While Taylor attributed his performance throughout the tour to good preparation on the court, he also pointed out room for improvement in his play. Taylor also credited his teammates and coaches for putting him in positions to be successful.
“[Taylor] was our most consistent guy and he’s been our most vocal leader and one of our hardest workers, so I wasn’t too surprised at the outcome he had there,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to coaching him these next few years.”
In the final game of the tour, Cal Poly was defeated by Solent Kestrels in a tight 93-90 overtime loss. While Cal Poly lost by just three points, the team put together an admirable comeback effort by producing a 12-2 run in the final minutes of regulation. The scoring drive was capped by a Cal Poly free throw to tie the game at 80-80 with two seconds remaining. The Solent Kestrels eventually came out on top after gaining the lead with just 13 seconds remaining in overtime.
“It showed our resiliency, which is one of our team’s core values,” Taylor said. “It was a stinger to lose, but it showed what we can be.”
With Cal Poly’s first set of non-conference games behind them, Smith said the team plans to build on what they learned in London. And while conference play is still months away, the team already has its eyes set on being a threat to the Big West Conference.
“Obviously we have to take those baby steps to get there, but ultimately we want to be at the top of the conference and give ourselves an opportunity to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Taylor said. “I think it’s established that the Big West Championship is very realistic, and we will get there.”