Consistency and improvement. Those are the two words head coach Joe Callero reiterates when speaking about his basketball team for the upcoming 2010-2011 season.
“We’ve got to become more consistent with our field goal percentage and overall play,” Callero said. “That’s going to translate to probably a more consistent season as it goes on.”
Last year, in Callero’s first with the Mustangs, Cal Poly struggled coming out of the gates, losing its first five games and eight out of its first 11. However, Cal Poly responded with a strong start in conference play, going 5-2 in its first seven conference games.
Despite struggling down the stretch, the Mustangs were able to secure a spot in the Big West Conference tournament. Cal Poly won its first game in the tournament against UC Irvine but fell to Long Beach State in a semifinal matchup to conclude their season with a 12-19 record.
This year, the Mustangs will be led by a quartet of players who Callero said he expects big things from. Callero said a big difference from last year is that the returners understand the coaching staff and their expectations better.
“We have four solid players that are back with some experience, which gives us a tremendous foundation to start building on,” Callero said.
Leading the way with the most experience on the team is senior guard Shawn Lewis. Lewis was the team’s second leading scorer last season, averaging 11.8 points per game. Also expected to have a big year is junior forward David Hanson, who averaged 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Callero said Lewis and Hanson are the two who will be counted on the most because of their talents and understanding of the offense and defense.
“Shawn Lewis and David Hanson are very familiar with our program and coaching staff,” Callero said. “I expect them to have very good years and they’ve done a really good job leading on and off the floor.”
Other key returners are juniors Will Donahue and Jordan Lewis. Donahue played in the first 10 games of last season before being ruled academically inelligible. This year Donahue returns to the mix after leading the team in rebounding a season ago with 8.8 rebounds per game in only 10 games.
Hanson said the extra year of working with the coaching staff has helped in his and all the returner’s understanding of the team’s expectations.
“Having that full year, I feel like it’s way different than it was last year since I’m trying to learn, other guys are trying to learn exactly what (Callero) wants,” Hanson said. “Now we know exactly what to expect, what he wants, how things work, and I think that makes the foundation of the program so we can teach the younger guys coming in.”
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, their depth has taken a hit this offseason — especially at the point guard position. Sophomore Kyle Odister, who led the Mustangs in 3-point field goal percentage (45.5 percent) last year, is out for the season after suffering an ankle injury. Expected to take his place was transfer Amaurys Fermin, who sat out last season after transferring from Hagerstown College, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Sophomore Chris O’Brien also missed some time this past week after suffering a minor head injury during practice.
That leaves the point guard position in the hands of freshman Jamal Johnson. Callero said Johnson has done a nice job to this point, but he is still learning what Callero expects from him.
“Unfortunately, you would prefer to have your starting quarterback back if you’re starting a football game; in basketball you would like to have your point guard back,” Callero said. “(Johnson’s) understanding of what I want on the court is difficult because we’ve only had four weeks together.”
Callero also said some of the freshmen and younger players won’t have the luxury of redshirting this year because they will be counted on to contribute at some point during the season.
“Now, it’s learning under fire,” Callero said. “We’re looking at a situation where they are going to have to develop in games. … The plan is to get them enough experience against great college basketball programs (so) that by January, when conference play starts, they are able to contribute without making any major mistakes.”
Despite being a freshman, Johnson said he feels comfortable and able to lead the team.
“I’m comfortable in my role as point guard, but it will be something that will take adjustment coming from a high school to a college level,” Johnson said. “I’ve been playing point guard. That’s been my role and I’ll do what I have to do to lead the team.”
With all the injuries that have impacted the Mustangs so far, Hanson said other guys have to step up and take their place.
“Any injury hurts, but when somebody goes down the next person has to step up and that’s kind of where we are at now,” Hanson said. “We’ve got guys stepping up and playing positions they need to play. It definitely hurts us, but at the same time, we’ve got to move forward and that’s exactly what’s going on.”
With the season right around the corner, the goal for the Mustangs is clear: make the Big West tournament and then the NCAA tournament.
“I think it’s something we can definitely do and it’s never happened here at Cal Poly before so I think that’s our main focus,” Hanson said.
Although the goal is clear, it won’t be easy for the Mustangs. Cal Poly faces a tough non-conference schedule which features matchups against San Diego State and Cal; both were NCAA tournament teams last season. Also included is a trip to historic Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 11 to play the UCLA Bruins in a game to be televised on FSN Prime Ticket.
Hanson said the non-conference games are great because it helps prepare the Mustangs for the Big West Conference schedule.
“(Tough non-conference games) are great,” Hanson said. “Not only are we going there trying to win, but those high-major teams exploit our weaknesses and what we need to work on; so by the time we hit Big West play, it gets us ready for conference play and what we need to do.”
After completing the non-conference schedule, the Mustangs will take on a tough Big West Conference. Last week, the Mustangs were picked to finish fifth in the conference by a Big West media poll, with rival UC Santa Barbara picked to repeat as Big West champions.
Shawn Lewis said the exhibition game was good for the guys that needed to experience their first game and showcase what the Mustangs can do.
“We have a lot of versatility,” Lewis said. “It’s a lot of our guys’ first game, so guys got to get the first game jitters out. Once we get a few games under our belt you’ll see a lot more contributing.”
The Mustangs will return to the hardwood on Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. for their opening game of the 2010-2011 season at Seattle University.
Hanson said he describes this time of year in one word: excitement.
“I think the style of basketball is exciting and fun to watch,” Hanson said. “I think people can expect good team basketball, fun, and on top of it extremely competitive. … We are all very excited to get out there and build on what we did last year because the tournament is definitely something that we can do in this conference.”
The Mustangs hit the court for the first time last Saturday with a 70-63 exhibition victory in Mott Gym against visiting Cal State East Bay. Hanson led the Mustangs by posting a double-double with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Shawn Lewis pitched in with 21 points and Donahue returned with a solid 12 points and 15 rebounds.
— Jerome Goyhenetche contributed to this article.