Senior forward Joel Awich led the Mustangs with 19 points and six rebounds against Austin Peay on Saturday night. | Ian Billings/Mustang News

Harry Chang

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Every recruit aims to raise some eyebrows.

When junior forward Joel Awich was scouted by Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero and staff, however, it wasn’t exactly a complete, well-rounded skill set that was doing the brow-raising.

Rather, it was Callero’s faith in the then low-stock Awich that had recruiters furrowing their brows, even scratching their heads.

“What the hell’s he doing here?” Callero recalls one fellow coach asking him of Awich. “That’s not a Division-I basketball player.”

Unfortunately for Callero at the time, there wasn’t much there for him to argue.

Awich was thin — only 185 pounds. He wasn’t confident, Callero said. He wasn’t very experienced and he wasn’t very aggressive.

“You’re right,” Callero would say. “He’s not a Division-I basketball player right now. But he’s going to be.”

“I treated him like good stock or a good upward trend,” Callero said. “We took the long steady approach with him, saying, ‘high character, high academics, great work ethic, great kid … and yeah, great athleticism.’ If we do it the right way then by the time he’s a junior or senior he’s going to be a great stock.”

Awich — a calm, collected individual off the court — isn’t one to argue. In fact, he will be the first to tell you that four years ago he was, in fact, a work in progress.

“I was literally just the rebound guy,” he says about his past play. “I would get anything around the basket, but I was never the big scorer. Even last year, having Chris Eversley and those other guys around me I was still more of a pass-first guy.”

But this year?

This year’s been different. The 6-foot-7 junior from Saint Paul, Minnesota — who is playing in his third year of eligibility — has been one of Cal Poly’s most productive offensive players in Big West Conference play.

His average of 11.3 points in 13 conference games has boosted his overall scoring mark to an 8.9 per-game figure and added a level of confidence to his game that has proved his ability, as well as his coach right.

“He’s been a steady developer,” Callero said. “He’s really gifted, very talented, very athletic, very cerebral smart kid, and in his over four years he’s just continued to develop confidence and skills that have made him as scorer, and now he really is an impact player on any given night for us both on offense and defense.”

With three games left to go in the regular season, Awich has now scored in double figures in 10 of Cal Poly’s last 12 games — including a career-best 19-point performance versus Long Beach State in a huge win on Feb. 14.

“I definitely have found that scoring is one of the things I improved on the most,” Awich said. “The more my shots fall the more confidence I get and the more I’m going to take shots and do what I can offensively to help the team win.”

And that defensive skill, the part of his game that was never any doubt for coaches, has only gotten stronger. Today, when you watch Awich go to work you’ll find that there really isn’t much he can’t do on either end of the floor. The redshirt junior has now recorded his first two double-doubles in points and rebounds within the last month. And in blocks, his calling card on defense, he has risen to third among Big West players this season with 1.48 blocks per game.

Awich has blocked multiple shots in a game 13 times this year, grabbed seven-plus rebounds 12 times, and now has 97 career blocks, which is good enough for third all time at Cal Poly. Thirty-seven of those blocks have come in this year alone.

“The blocks are definitely the part of my game I’m most happy I was able to bring to college,” he admits. “Blocking shots has always been kind of a fun thing for me ever since I started playing in high school, and I’m glad I could keep that up at the college level.”

Callero knows as well as anyone else that having a force known within the conference as a rim protector can do wonders in changing the approach of opposing offenses.

“It’s not just the blocks,” Callero added. “But the ones that he may alter or that teams may not drive as far are what helps. Opponents now see Joel and they realize, ‘That’s a long-armed guy that can jump quickly and get a hand on my shots’ and maybe think twice about shooting it in that situation.”

Wreaking havoc on defense is a testament to not judging Awich for face value. While he may not have made many waves in his four years at Cal Poly — from his underwhelming recruiting experience to his calm demeanor in practice and in conversation — the evolution of his offensive game means has made watching Awich on the court a wild, raucous experience.

“From where he was this year is a 150-degree improvement, and over the next year I hope we can improve another 30 degrees where he can really be a gentleman, a scholar off the court then beast-mode animal on the court.”

Cal Poly faces UC Irvine on Feb. 26 in a blackout game inside Mott Athletics Center at 7 p.m. For Cal Poly’s most impressive and still-rising investment, though, the closing bell is still far from being rung.

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