The Mustangs play their first exhibition game against Cal State L.A. on Thursday at Mott Athletic Center at 7 p.m. Credit: Eyasu Betwos | Mustang News

Cal Poly men’s basketball could see dramatic improvement across the board this season.

The Mustangs now have nine upperclassmen on the roster and are poised to make strides as a team this season. The program is also incorporating five new players, including four transfers with Division I experience. 

“Anytime you bring back nine guys and five starters and 80% of your scoring, there’s some continuity that they begin to teach the other guys and it’s not just us coaches,” head coach John Smith said.

This season is Smith’s fourth at the helm, but it’s the first time this group had a full offseason not affected by the pandemic. The team was thrown into the fire the past two seasons as they fielded a young roster that wasn’t fully prepared to play at the college level.

The benefits of the years of development could come to fruition this year. There were glimpses of what the team could be last season: a stifling defense that gets in transition and can play out of the post.

Veteran leadership and maturity

The continuity within the roster combined with veteran leadership is something the Mustangs haven’t had under Smith’s tenure. 

“We have older guys coming in from previous programs that won and they’re really good,” senior forward Trevon Taylor said. “We got guys that were younger that were a little immature last year and a little inexperienced. They have all that experience and more.”

That level of maturity can give the team a chance to compete.

One issue the team had last season was taking care of the ball down the stretch of games (14.7 turnovers per game). With the team bringing in more veteran players, there are more ball handling options to turn to.

“Every practice we try and work on [after timeout] situations, late game situations and try and get them familiar with how to execute and what they’re looking for,” Smith said.

The influence of newcomers

The players brought into the program boost areas of need while also maintaining the strengths of the team.

One area of need was shooting. According to Synergy stats, the Mustangs’ points per possessions for jumpshots ranked in the third percentile in all of Division-I men’s basketball. 

Graduate transfer wing Chance Hunter will help improve that number. Hunter is a former All-Conference player at Long Beach State who is transferring to Cal Poly from Cal Baptist. He is a career 36.5% three-point shooter on 4.2 attempts per game. 

Not only is Hunter a capable shooter, he has the ability to keep defenders honest by attacking closeouts off the dribble.

Defensively, Hunter stands at 6-6 and can guard multiple positions. The team switches a lot on defense to keep the ball in front, and Hunter fits perfectly in that system.

Graduate guards Nick Fleming and sophomore guard Isaac Spears will both help space the floor. Each of them have fluid jumpshots and can shoot the ball off movement.

Fleming and Spears will also help with ball handling. Fleming operates as more of a point guard who can run pick and roll while Spears is more of a scoring guard who is dynamic with the ball in his hands and can create space for his shot whenever he wants. 

At the big spot, junior center Bryan Penn-Johnson gives the team a finisher and vertical threat on the offensive end. Penn-Johnson stands at 7-1 and has a 7-7 wingspan that allows him to finish lobs or dump-offs with a dunk.

Penn-Johnson bolsters an already formidable defense as well, as he can use his length to bother shots around the rim.

“We will try and keep him closer to the basket as much as possible because he is a problem down there,” Smith said. 

The last addition is freshman forward Aaron Price Jr., who might already be the most explosive athlete on the team. Standing at 6-8, Price Jr. won the dunk contest at the team’s Mott Madness Event. 

“He is going to be a phenomenal player,” Smith said. “I feel he will be a multiple all-Big West performer but the game has to slow down for him for that to happen.”

Price has the potential to impact the team this season with his athleticism and energy. He fits right into the team’s switching scheme and can also be a screen-and-roller on offense.

How it all comes together

If the Mustangs can take strides offensively, they can be a force to be reckoned with in the Big West.

While the team didn’t make shots as a whole last season, multiple players had flashes of being solid catch-and-shoot threats. 

“It’s a process when you come to the college level because it’s different than the high school level,” Smith said. “So those guys were sophomores, and their freshman year was taken away from them with COVID. They’re now learning how to prep their shot quicker and load their legs faster and that helps with them executing their shot.”

The other aspect to the team’s shooting is how well senior big man Alimamy Koroma can pass from the post. Last year, Koroma finished with 69 turnovers to 15 assists due to him seeing plenty of double teams.

If he can get his assist to turnover ratio to above even, it will put defenses in a tough position in the halfcourt.

“You got to play through Ali in almost every possession,” Smith said. “If you do, those guys are gonna get wide open shots because he’s a problem. He’s a willing passer and he’s a great teammate. So we’re looking for big things out of him.”

Taylor is another key piece to the team. Taylor was a consistent starter for the team because of his versatility on both ends. On defense, he’s a high feel defender that understands when to switch to blow up opposing team’s action. 

“We need [Taylor] to stay on the floor,” Smith said. “There’s gonna be games where TJ is going to have 20 points and there’s gonna be games where TJ has eight points. And I’m fine with that, as long as he’s on the floor impacting the game in other areas. He is the glue to what we’re trying to do.” 

The key for the team is becoming a more effective offensive team while building what they did on the defensive end last year. With the players the team brought in, there is a new level of maturity and talent on the roster to grow from within. 

The Mustangs play their first exhibition game against Cal State LA on Thursday at Mott Athletic Center at 7 p.m.