Mustang News File Photo

Junior guard Maliik Love returns to the Cal Poly men’s basketball team this year after redshirting in 2012-13 because of an injury suffered last season. The Oceanside, Calif. native earned 2010-11 Co-Freshman of the Year honors in his first year on campus.

Jacob Lauing

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Cal Poly learned one important thing from its 70-68 upset over then-No. 11 UCLA last season:

If you want big wins, you need big buckets.

The Mustangs, down 18 against the Bruins at one point, came back and won a thriller, thanks to six three-pointers from senior Dylan Royer. UCLA was the highest ranked team Cal Poly had ever beaten.

“That game could’ve, would’ve, should’ve been a blowout,” head coach Joe Callero said. “And the fact that we didn’t quit, hang our head and worry about too much, we were able to turn around and make a couple shots.”

Callero’s squad will need plenty more magic from downtown this year, as the Mustangs face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in program history.

That starts this Friday at No. 5 Arizona, the highest-ranked opponent Cal Poly has ever faced.

“We’ve been in a lot of the big gyms,” Callero said. “We enjoy that environment. We’re looking forward to being on ESPN, having our games covered, having cameras, 14,000 fans there. Guys came to Cal Poly to play a real national schedule. It bodes well for all fronts.”

In December, the Mustangs will find themselves in the national spotlight again, facing No. 19 Oregon, Pittsburgh and Stanford on the road. Cal Poly’s tustles with Oregon and Stanford will be televised on the Pac-12 Network, while ESPN3 will air the Pittsburg contest.

The Mustangs — who finished third in the Big West Conference last season — fell to Pacific in the semifinals of the conference tournament, but earned an invitation to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

Cal Poly lost to Weber State in the first round, providing an abrupt end to its first playoff appearance in 19 years.

“The College Insider tournament, it was nice to be in, but nothing beats the Big Dance,” senior forward Chris Eversley said. “There’s nothing better than winning the conference tournament and winning the regular season as well and cutting down the nets both in Mott and at the Honda Center, so that’s the goal for this year.”

Eversley, a two-time Big West player of the week last year, averaged 15.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. He returns to the starting lineup this year, along with senior guard Jamal Johnson, who led the Big West with a 2.75-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior guard Kyle Odister is also expected to start.

Still, Callero insists that nothing is set in stone with regards to the lineup. He’s instituted what the coaching staff calls a “current lineup,” instead of a solidified starting five.

“Each day is a new lineup,” Callero said. “Each position is up for grabs on a daily basis. Every day we want guys competing for a starting spot.”

Cal Poly welcomes seven new players to the court, including freshmen Markel Leonard, Andy Rowley, Ridge Shipley and Taylor Sutlive, as well as transfer students Dave Nwaba, Alberto Ganis and Michael Bolden.

“I have the most confidence in this team’s depth and versatility,” Callero said. “It’s the most depth at every position we’ve ever had, which bodes well over 30 games. It may not bode well in one single game or in one month, but when it comes to conference play, something always happens, so the more depth you have, the more you can wear it through.”

Cal Poly opens its Big West schedule on Jan. 9, hosting Hawaii in Mott Athletics Center.

The Mustangs were picked to finish third behind UC Irvine and rival UC Santa Barbara in the conference preseason media poll. Eversley, who scored a career-high 30 points against Cal State Northridge on Jan. 26, was named to the six-man preseason all-conference team.

“The rest of the conference, from top to bottom, this might be the most competitive it’s ever been.” Eversley said. “I’m just glad it’s like that for my senior year so I can say I was a part of something special.”

But before the Mustangs can crack the Big West, they’ll have to battle its daunting non-conference schedule.

Callero and his seniors made a pact that no matter what the results of their 13-game non-conference schedule are, the team wants to be healthy and learn from their fierce competition.

“I truly believe that you learn more from adversity than you do from comfort,” Callero said. “That’s going to prepare us that much more for any postseason opportunities that we ever get in to.”

With two nationally ranked teams and two Pac-12 opponents on deck for Cal Poly, Callero has a good idea of where he’d like to be at the preseason’s end.

“I’d like to be alive,” Callero said.

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