The men's basketball team competes in the Big West Conference Tournament, starting Thursday. "It's been a long time coming, 368 days since (our tournament exit last year), I've been keeping count of it," All-Big West first team junior Chris Eversley (above) said.
The men’s basketball team competes in the Big West Conference Tournament, starting Thursday. “It’s been a long time coming, 368 days since (our tournament exit last year), I’ve been keeping count of it,” All-Big West first team junior Chris Eversley (above) said.
The men’s basketball team competes in the Big West Conference Tournament, starting Thursday. “It’s been a long time coming, 368 days since (our tournament exit last year), I’ve been keeping count of it,” All-Big West first team junior Chris Eversley (above) said.

Stephan Teodosescu
steodosescu@mustangdaily.net

After All-Big West first team junior Chris Eversley suffered a high ankle sprain in Cal Poly’s 68-53 victory over UC Davis on Feb. 9, the 6-foot-7 forward decided to sit out the next game against rival UC Santa Barbara.

While he was able to warm up pregame before the clash with the Gauchos, Eversley and the training staff decided he wouldn’t play in arguably the most anticipated matchup of the season inside the Mott Athletics Center. The team’s leading scorer needed extra time to get healthy — he was looking at the “big picture.”

And now with the Big West Conference Tournament starting Thursday, that picture is finally coming into frame for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team. The No. 3-seeded Mustangs (17-12, 12-6 Big West) take on No. 6 UC Davis (14-16, 9-9) inside the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Tip-off for the quarterfinal round is set for approximately 2:30 p.m. with the winner of the single-elimination tournament automatically advancing to the NCAA tournament starting next week.

“It’s been a long time coming, 368 days since (our tournament exit last year), I’ve been keeping count of it,” Eversley, who is averaging more than 16 points and seven rebounds per game, said at Monday’s press conference. “UC Davis is a great matchup for us. We match up well with them at every position, so it should be a good game for us to test the waters of the conference tournament.”

Having won five straight games and eight of their past nine, the Mustangs are one of the hottest teams in the conference headed into the postseason. With their most recent win against Cal State Fullerton, the Mustangs posted the program’s highest Big West win total in 19 Division I seasons.

Eversley, a returning member from last year’s team that finished the season with a loss to UC Santa Barbara in the second round of the conference tournament, said those returning will be playing with a deep tourney run in mind.

“It hurt in the locker room afterward,” Eversley said of the loss to the Gauchos. “I didn’t just lose six teammates, I lost six close friends (to graduation). That stuck with me over the past year and the rest of the guys are gonna use that as motivation as well.”

That team finished the season with an 18-15 overall record and earned a win in the opening round of the tournament over UC Riverside.

But Cal Poly’s lineup at the Honda Center will be drastically different this year. Senior guard Dylan Royer will be the only player from last season’s finale to start consecutive tournament games.

But for head coach Joe Callero, the amount of playing time his young team has amassed during the course of the season negates any questions of postseason inexperience.

“We really don’t feel like people are freshmen,” Callero said. “We feel that you move on after about 20 games under your belt.”

In fact, the Mustangs will likely have true freshman Brian Bennett who is one of two players to have started in every game this season, among the starters Thursday.

“It’s still just basketball at the end of the day,” Bennett said. “Before that first game, I’m probably (going to) get really nervous. But that nervousness tells you that it’s important to you and you really care about what you’re doing.”

As for the veterans, Royer will be playing in his fourth Big West tournament while Eversley and senior guard Chris O’Brien will be playing in their second postseason. Guards Kyle Odister and Drake U’u will also play in their second tournament after sitting out last year with injuries.

Besides that, youth will permeate the lineup off the bench, with as many as four freshmen set to play against the Aggies.

No worries for the Mustangs, though, as they’re used to inexperience anchoring the front court.

“We like to look at the inexperience that people think that we have, by this point in the season we’ve played 29 games, and throw that whole thing out the window,” Eversley said.

The Mustangs split the season series this year with the Aggies, as they won the home leg on Feb. 9 and dropped a Jan. 10 heartbreaker on the road when sophomore guard Corey Hawkins nailed a jumper at the buzzer to sink the team.

They’ll need to find a way to stop Hawkins, the conference’s leading scorer averaging 20.9 per game, and junior guard Ryan Sypkens, who ranks 15th nationally in 3-point field goal shooting percentage at 47.1 percent.

“A way to get better is to look back and address your shortcomings from the previous games,” Callero said. “To prepare best for UC Davis, you need to tighten up your shortcomings against Fullerton … We’re always looking to get better, and the best way is to look back and pull yourself forward from that point on.”

Three more wins for the Mustangs would grant them their first NCAA tournament berth in school history and would have them looking at the biggest picture of all — a frame of them dancing in March.

“I want to make history,” Bennett said. “All of us are on board with that, we want to make history. We all want to reach that goal of ours … make it to the NCAA tournament.”

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