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The No. 7 seed.
A regular season finale loss to UC Santa Barbara.
A rematch against the Gauchos in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament.
You’d be excused if you’re feeling a bit of deja vu, because the last time this all happened was … exactly a year ago.
The Cal Poly men’s basketball team (13-15, 6-10 Big West Conference) dropped its final game of the regular season 64-56 to the Gauchos (18-12, 11-5) this past Saturday. UC Davis’ victory over UC Irvine later in the night secured Cal Poly’s rematch with UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
In 2014, this exact story played out in the final weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
The Gauchos, who earned the Big West’s No. 2 seed in the tourney, blew out the Mustangs in the regular season finale. But No. 7 Cal Poly returned the favor five days later with a 69-38 romp of UC Santa Barbara in the quarterfinals en route to its first-ever Big West Tournament championship.
In 2015, it’s shaping up to be more of the same.
Last season, Cal Poly became the first team in the Big West Tournament’s 39-year history to win it all from the seventh seed. The Mustangs went on to knock off Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before being ousted by No. 1 seed Wichita State in the second round.
Can the Mustangs repeat the madness? Cal Poly will certainly have to play better than the way it finished conference play, according to head coach Joe Callero.
“We have yet to play our best basketball or best basketball game of the year,” Callero said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Excluding the hauntingly similar circumstances between Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara’s matchup, the resemblance between this year’s campaign and last year’s is still striking:
- This year’s team and last year’s finished Big West play at 6-10
- This year, the Mustangs enter postseason play having won only three of their final nine regular season games. Last year, they won two of their last nine
- This year, Cal Poly got expectedly swept by UC Davis (the Aggies were the best team in the Big West with a 24-5 overall record). Last year, it got embarrassingly swept by UC Davis (the Aggies were the worst team in the conference with nine total wins)
- This year, Cal Poly is in that familiar No. 7 seed with its rival sitting at No. 2. As we know, the same thing happened last year
But there are two major differences between 2013-14 and 2014-15, and they could prove to undo the Mustangs come this weekend. The first is the loss of former forward Chris Eversley, who anchored Cal Poly on offense and was named tournament MVP last season. The second is that pesky UC Davis team.
Eversley, who now plays professionally overseas, led Cal Poly with 13.5 points per game and 31 minutes played per game last season. This season, the Mustangs have junior guard David Nwaba leading the charge at 11.8 points per contest, along with several others averaging double-digits, but he’s struggled to find the court due to injury and illness the last few weeks.
Under Callero, the Mustangs have historically been a low-scoring, slow-tempo team, so no individual usually stands out on the scoresheet from year to year. But Eversley was able to come alive in the Big West tourney.
Scoring droughts late in games have plagued Cal Poly all season, and especially so in Big West matchups. A guy like Eversley to go to down the stretch could prove to be the difference in March. The Mustangs average less than 59 possessions per 40 minutes this season — ranking them 347th out of 351 Division I programs in that category — meaning any sort of swoon deep in a game could be lethal because they don’t have the offensive firepower to come back.
The other difference between last year’s run and this one’s is UC Davis’ turnaround from a season ago. The Aggies were left out of the eight-team conference tournament in 2013-14 but captured the No. 1 seed with a dominant regular season this time around.
The main reason is Corey Hawkins’ 20.6 points per game and the rest of the team’s shooting from the floor. UC Davis leads all squads, connecting on 49.5 percent of its field goals, whereas Cal Poly is the Big West’s worst team in that category shooting at a 39.1 percent clip.
The Big West always features parity in inter-conference play, but this year the Aggies are certainly looking like a mid-major NCAA Tournament team. They’ve got the record, the devastating outside shooting and, did I mention, Corey Hawkins? He leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (49.3 percent) by the way.
For Cal Poly, the Mustangs will first have to get past UC Santa Barbara and its own star in senior center Alan Williams if they’d like a shot at UC Davis. But, that’s what we wrote a year ago and look how that turned out.
“Both (UC Santa Barbara head coach) Bob Williams and I are in complete agreement on one thing,” Callero said. “There are zero points given to us from last year and zero points taken away from last year. There’s zero influence from what happened last year.”
To think on the bright side, if you’re a Cal Poly fan, this season’s team is, by most measures, better. Last season’s squad finished the year below .500 even with four straight playoff wins. If the Mustangs repeat as Big West Tournament champs this season, they will be one game over .500 entering the NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs are also outscoring opponents (by 1.3 points per game) vs. last year’s minus-0.6 point differential.
And despite its 6-10 Big West record, Cal Poly has been within striking distance in many of its 10 losses. The Mustangs only lost two of those matchups by double digits.
“We feel like we can play with anyone on our conference,” junior forward Brian Bennett said. “On any given night anyone can upset anyone.”
So, if your memory serves you correctly, you wouldn’t bet against Cal Poly. You don’t want to say you didn’t see it coming if the Mustangs pull off another Cinderella run, but the road to get there might be a bit tougher this time around.
The No. 2 Mustangs and No. 7 Gauchos will tip off Thursday at approximately 8:30 p.m. at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
Big West Tournament Predictions:
1) UC Davis
2) UC Irvine
3) UC Santa Barbara
5) Long Beach State
6) Cal Poly
7) UC Riverside
8) Cal State Northridge
Rafael Salinas contributed to this article.