Kyle Har is a journalism senior, Matthew Ho is a journalism freshman and they are Mustang News sports reporter. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
This season’s 7-21 record wasn’t a desirable outcome, but the Cal Poly men’s basketball team is close to making a turnaround.
There were flashes of what the team could be throughout the year: a team that buys into the defensive end with multiple guys on offense who can attack the basket and make plays for others.
As the program wraps up its third season under head coach John Smith, it was another year of unprecedented adversity. In the middle of the season, two key upperclassmen departed from the team and five games were canceled due to COVID protocols.
“You know, it’s still a climb, and it’s a constant climb, and our guys continue to battle and fight throughout the year,” Coach Smith said. “One of the takeaways is that you never saw any quit in my team.”
The team has built a strong culture of trust and cohesion. In an era of college basketball where an unprecedented number of players enter the transfer portal yearly, not one player from this past season’s roster has entered the portal, according to junior forward Trevon Taylor.
That continuity will be an advantage for the Mustangs next season.
“I feel like it’s going to put us in a great position to keep building,” Taylor said. “I feel like, in the summer, we will be able to gel even more than we have.”
A Standout Season from Alimamy Koroma
An essential piece of that continuity is junior center Alimamy Koroma. He earned All-Big West honorable mention recognition this past season after averaging 13.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Offensively, he is the Mustangs’ primary option. He scores mainly from the low block, but flashed some outside shooting ability as well.
“He’s probably the most skilled scorer, especially at the post position, I ever played with,” Taylor said.
Koroma utilizes an array of hook shots to score from the post. He’s slightly undersized for the center position, but he uses his speed advantage to drive by slower defenders and finish at the basket.
By the end of the season, Koroma’s scoring became dominant enough to where it forced defenses to adjust to his presence and send help to get the ball out of his hands. However, even with the extra defensive attention, he had some big scoring outings later in the year, including a 26-point, 11-rebound outing against UC Riverside, and a 27-point, seven-rebound effort versus UC Irvine.
There were times the double-teams did bother Koroma. He couldn’t punish the defense for bringing multiple guys to him and the defense recovered after he kicked the ball out. However, he started to progress in that area and was able to identify where the double teams were coming from and make the correct skip pass.
“Ali’s done a better job of understanding where the double teams are coming from, and that speaks volumes to his progression as an offensive threat,” Coach Smith said.
Even though he shoulders a heavy offensive load, he is a high-level defensive player. Koroma had 24 blocks across the whole year. From a communication standpoint, he does an excellent job of telling the on-ball defender the pick and roll coverage.
The issue for Koroma defensively was foul trouble. He averaged 3.1 fouls per game and fouled out of two contests. Opposing teams would attack him on defense to wear him down and get him out of the game with foul trouble.
Foul issues aside, Koroma was a massive contributor to the Mustangs’ strong half-court defense. The center needs to be a positive defender to be solid on that end of the court and Koroma provided that.
If he can maintain his defensive intensity and stay out of foul trouble while also leveraging his scoring ability into easier looks for his teammates, the team will be a contender in the Big West.
A Young Core Returning
Along with Koroma, Cal Poly will return the rest of the starting lineup and most of their rotation. The only player graduating is center Tuukka Jaakkola.
Three of the five starters were underclassmen, with guards Camren Pierce and Brantly Stevenson and forward Kobe Sanders all being sophomores. Pierce started 26 of 28 games, Stevenson started 23 of 28 games and Sanders earned the role by starting the last 14 games of the season.
Coach Smith pointed out certain improvements with all three players starting with Pierce, who progressed in a leadership role from both a “vocal and stability standpoint.”
Stevenson made huge strides in his ability to impact the game both offensively and defensively, as he plays with a high motor. The one thing that Smith wants to see more out of Stevenson is learning to “slow down offensively.”
Lastly, Sanders proved his versatility to his team as he played the one through four positions, which was a factor in being named a starter in the second half of the season.
“They are now going to be upperclassmen and I expect them to understand the culture more than making shots and defending anybody,” Smith said.
From the starters alone, the Mustangs return 46.1 points per game and 22.1 rebounds per game, which gives Smith the confidence in his team to improve on last season’s record.
A Steady Presence
In addition to the majority of the team, Taylor will return for next season. He started all but one game last season in his first year with the Mustangs after transferring from James Madison, leading the team in minutes per game at 30.3.
Taylor is a key communicator on the defensive end, able to guard every position on the floor and a solid rebounder. On offense, Taylor can shoot the three but can attack closeouts with his strong left-handed drive.
He’s a steady presence in terms of both production and emotions on the court.
“No matter what the score is, what’s going on in the game, you can never read whether it’s good or bad, and that’s a good thing,” Coach Smith said. “You know, he plays one way, [he] plays hard. He competes every single time out on the floor.”
According to Coach Smith, Taylor is also a leader for the young team.
“Although he’s not a vocal leader, he’s leading by example and that’s what these young guys need,” Coach Smith said. “You can’t can’t put a stamp on how much he means to this team.”
Next year, Taylor said he wants to take a more prominent scoring role. He was an efficient 48% from the field on the year and shot 35% from three, but played a secondary role on the offensive end.
“I feel like I’m going to have to continue that and step into a bigger scoring role next year,” Taylor said. “And not only score the ball, but keep doing the things that I’ve been doing as far as rebounding and defending and being that assertive aggressive one.”
Taylor wants to be “someone that the team can lean on consistently and not just in spurts in one game and then go quiet next.”
“That’s probably my biggest challenge,” Taylor said.
With a full off-season ahead and most of the team returning, the Mustangs will look to make a push to the top of the Big West in the 2022-23 season.