Matthew Ho is a journalism freshman and Mustang News sports columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
In this year’s Blue-Green rivalry matchup, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team raced out to a 10-0 lead against UC Santa Barbara. The Gaucho’s roster is comprised of veteran players who reached the NCAA tournament last season, yet the young Cal Poly roster picked apart the Gauchos to start the game.
The offense was in a groove. The defense was solid as well. The Mustangs were applying ball pressure and fought over ball screens. Their backline rotations were on point and they ran Santa Barbara’s shooters off the three-point line.
However as the game wore on, Santa Barbara chipped away at the early run. They started to make shots they were missing early on in the game and Cal Poly couldn’t run in transition for easier scoring opportunities. The offense began to falter and UCSB held on for the 69-64 win.
“At some point, we gotta win those games,” Head Coach John Smith said after the Feb. 12 rivalry game. “And at some point, we will win those games. Our young guys are going through this earlier than normal.”
That’s been the story for the Mustangs all season long. They’ve built leads against some of the best in the Big West, like Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton but haven’t been able to close the game.
Part of the issue stems from a high number of turnovers. The Mustangs are averaging 15.1 turnovers per game and have a 0.7 assist to turnover ratio. In their matchup up with Long Beach State, the team turned the ball over 23 times to Long Beach’s seven turnovers.
Many of the errors came from Long Beach’s full-court press that sped the Mustangs up and caused turnovers.
Sophomore point guard Camren Pierce acknowledged that cleaning up those mistakes is one of the most important improvements for the team heading into the back half of conference play.
“That’s one of my biggest jobs to take care of the ball and make sure I don’t put people in positions to where they turn the ball over,” Pierce said. “That’s probably our biggest thing and it’s all on me.”
Despite the disheartening losses, Pierce pointed out the cohesion of the group.
“We have a group that actually likes each other and likes being around each other,” Pierce said. “Our biggest thing is that we feel like we should win every game.”
That trust in each other shows on the defensive end of the court. The Mustangs employ an aggressive defensive scheme. They utilize multiple coverages from hard hedging ball screens to switching between zone and man during possessions that require on-point awareness and communication from everyone on the court.
Coach Smith pointed out that the team on defense “understands the gameplan very well. Guys have done a great job of understanding the scout.”
He added that “now it’s teaching them how to adjust when the other team adjusts and how to win down the stretch.”
However, that same execution level hasn’t materialized on the offensive end yet. The team’s best scoring option is to feed junior center and leading scorer Alimamy Koroma down low. When the team gets him clean entry passes with deep post position, it’s hard to stop his array of hook shots drives to the basket. He is averaging 13.3 points on 51% shooting on the season.
The offense has trouble when teams key onto Koroma by denying entry passes to him and double-teaming him when he starts to back down. The offense isn’t able to capitalize on the defense helping off of them and opposing defenses are willing to concede perimeter looks, considering Cal Poly is shooting 29% from three on the year.
The Mustangs have also only attempted 390 threes on the year compared to 448 attempts from opponents. When players turn down looks, the possession dies out, and the result is usually a difficult shot running against the shot clock.
When asked about what the offense can improve on Pierce said, “confidence –– playing with confidence.”
“If you look at a lot of our games, somebody might play well and somebody might not play well offensively,” Pierce said. “Everyone needs to find their confidence, finding where they’re going to get their shots from, [and] trusting the work you put in and trusting that the game plan we have is the game plan.”
The other offensive problem is that Koroma has dealt with foul trouble at times, forcing him to sit for stretches. His solution: “Not foul.”
“Most of the teams come out with the game plan to attack me and get me a couple of fouls and get me out of the game,” Koroma said. “It’s tough when you are constantly being attacked and you have to guard and play without fouling.”
The groundwork is there for the team to improve offensively. They have a primary scoring option in Koroma and athletic perimeter players that can shoot the ball and drive to the basket.
“[We need] to make sure we space the floor properly and slow down when teams are trying to speed us up and play fast when we want to get in transition,” Smith said. “For a younger team, it’s harder to decipher.”
The team’s rotation is mainly composed of sophomores and juniors. Center Tuukka Jaakkola is the only senior on the team.
“The future is bright for Cal Poly and what we came to do as a staff was strip it down and rebuild it from the bottom up with the freshmen…and build around them and let them grow through it,” Smith said.
While Cal Poly is playing against teams made up of more experienced upperclassmen, the team’s key players are on the younger side. In their top-seven players, in terms of minutes played, four are sophomores or younger.
“One of the beautiful things that’s happened is that these guys are thrust into the fire normally before they should [be] for different reasons,” Smith said. “But I think this will bode well for us in the future.”
The expectations for this team to perform aren’t as high, but the team is confident in its ability to compete and beat the best in the Big West this season.
When asked whether he believes this team is on the same level as some of the top schools in the conference, Koroma said “yes, definitely.”
“This is still a young team,” Koroma said. “We are still learning and growing together. I think we’ve struggled to finish games. We’ve struggled to be poised when we need to, get timely buckets, timely stops, but we’ve been learning and we’ve been growing as a team.”
Everyone’s record is wiped away clean when the conference tournament comes. In the tournament, it’s one game, do-or-die. This team has proven that they can compete against anyone in the conference.
“I think we’re going to make some noise,” Koroma said, when asked how he believed they would fair in the Big West tournament.