Quentin Jones (left) and Justin Page (right) will join the Mustangs for the 2022-23 season. Credit: Illustration by Miles Berman and Midjourney, Photos Courtesy of Owen Main

The Midwest was once a fertile recruiting ground for Cal Poly Men’s Basketball. In the early 2010s, the program brought in talent from Illinois and Minnesota, from All-Big West First Team selection Chris Eversley to All-Big West Second Team selection Brian Bennett.

The mastermind behind the team’s Midwest finds was an assistant on staff named Omar Lowery. 

Originally from Wisconsin, Lowery established strong recruiting roots in the Midwest states. Former head coach Joe Callero once called Lowery “one of the most well-respected and connected recruiters.”

When Lowery was on staff from 2009 to 2013, the program had one of the best stints in its history. The team had its highest finish in the Big West in 2010-2011 (second place) and reached the Big West semifinals in three consecutive seasons. 

Lowery left Cal Poly in 2013. His departure meant the program lost its connection to those states. However, he returned in June 2022 as an assistant to current head coach John Smith. Already, the program is rekindling its ties to the Midwest. 

Two incoming freshmen – Justin Page and Quentin Jones – hail from the heart of Lowery’s recruiting ground. 

“Quentin and Justin have the talent and capabilities to make an immediate impact as freshmen,” Lowery wrote to Mustang News. “I can say from my previous experience and success recruiting here at Cal Poly, there is a type of college athlete that can really thrive and make their mark here.”

What truly links Page and Jones, beyond growing up in Illinois, is that their journey to Division-I basketball didn’t come easy. The incoming backcourt had uphill battles to establish themselves as high school players. Neither were four-year varsity athletes and had growth spurts that propelled them as prospects.

Peoria, Ill. native Justin Page is the only Division-I basketball player at his age from the city.

However, college recruiters didn’t come flocking to the now 6-foot-4 guard right away.

When Page was a freshman, he described himself as a “skinny 5-foot-10 guy” that the team brought up to varsity to shoot three-pointers. There wasn’t a clear picture of how Page could become a Division-I basketball player.

Over the pandemic between his freshman and sophomore year, Page had a growth spurt and started to develop his game. His sophomore season was cut short due to the pandemic, but according to Page, he showed more ball handling and became a better defender.

Heading into his junior season, Page was poised to take another leap, but things didn’t work out the way he expected.

“I was in a bad situation,” Page said. “I was letting everything else, all the outside stuff, affect my on-court game.”

Page didn’t go into detail about the situation, but he did add that he dealt with overthinking and trying to make others happy over himself. 

“That’s never going to work out,” Page said. 

Page’s game started to click between his junior and senior years. He said the big shift for him was that he no longer had to worry about beating the man in front of him. He could focus on reading the backline of the defense and decide whether to dish the ball to a teammate or get his own look.

For his senior year, Page transferred to East Peoria High School. He had a standout season where he earned a spot on the All-Mid-Illini Conference First Team. 

“This past year was great for my scoring and honestly my playmaking too,” Page said. “When I was a freshman, I definitely didn’t have that.”

At Cal Poly, Page wants to do “anything to win.”

“If that’s going out there scoring, that’s what I’m gonna do,” Page said. “If that’s locking up on defense, I’m going to do it. Playmaking, I’m going to do it. So whatever it is to get a win, that’s what I’m going to do.” 

Hazel Crest, Ill. is located on the south side of Chicago, approximately two hours from Peoria. Despite Page and Quentin Jones living in the same state, the two incoming Mustangs have never faced off against each other.

Similar to Page, Jones’s trajectory to Division-I wasn’t a straight path.

“I didn’t actually become one of the top players on my high school team or really like my coach necessarily until midway through my junior year,” Jones said.

When Jones was a freshman, he was relegated to playing the center position at 6-foot-2 on the junior varsity team. The pandemic shortened the following season to 13 games. Coming back for his junior year, Jones needed to prove himself. 

“I finally got up to varsity, but…some of the stuff I was doing, [the coach] wasn’t really happy with,” Jones said. “It was just a lot of head-butting.”

As his junior season progressed, the 6-foot-5 Jones started to find his footing. 

“I had my own identity and was able to produce for myself and the team,” Jones said. “Once I gained the trust from [the coach], things started to get better in basketball and in general.”

Even with the unideal situation at his high school Marian Catholic, Jones never transferred out.

“When adversity hits you don’t just run away,” Jones said. “I had an approach where I was just like ‘I’m going to just have to put in the extra work just, so I can get to where I want to be.’”

Positionally, Jones slots in as an off-guard. His game is simple. He doesn’t need to pull off an array of dribble combos to put the ball in the basket.  

“If I’m going to try to score, I’m going to try to score as quickly as possible,” Jones said. “Because if you miss a shot after dribbling for 10 seconds, [the coach] is going to get really mad at you.”

The coaching staff at Cal Poly expressed a high level of interest in him, according to Jones, which drew him to sign with the Mustangs. 

“I noticed they have big plans for me,” Jones said. 

For Jones and Page, there are expectations to come in right away and contribute.

“I told them both that if they’re not in the rotation, shame on them,” Smith said. “Now it’s up to them. They got to understand the scheme. But from a competitive standpoint, from a skill standpoint, from a talent standpoint, they should be on the floor.”

The Mustangs have finished bottom of the Big West every season since 2018-2019. Last year, the team won its conference opener and failed to win a game the rest of the season, including a program-worst 18-game losing streak.

But the team has a fresh start. Out of the nine players who received more than 300 minutes last season, only three are returning: senior Kobe Sanders, junior Julien Franklin and senior Bryan Penn-Johnson.

“It’s just a mindset from day one. Me and Justin can come in and create a strong impact,” Jones said. “We can spark some motivation in them. I don’t think any upperclassmen or people that have been there want to lose their spot to a freshman.”

The team has yet to find the same level of success assistant coach Omar Lowery was a part of in the early 2010s, but with the pair of Illinois guards in the fold brings renewed hope to the upcoming season.