Harry Chang & Ashley DeVriend
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When the Cal Poly men’s basketball team boards the plane for its game against Hawaii on Jan. 7, it will not only be leaving the mainland for the Manoa campus, the team will be departing from one of the toughest nonconference schedules in Cal Poly history.
The 12-game opening slate included just three home games, compared to nine games on the road or at neutral sites. It also included a seven-day stretch in which the Mustangs played three games, then four games in seven days a few weeks after, and ended with their longest road trip in their 35-season history.
That road trip — five games away from Mott Athletics Center over a span of 12 days — culminates in Wednesday’s Big West Conference matchup against Hawaii, which officially ushers the Mustangs into the conference portion of their schedule.
An unparalleled travel itinerary did not go unmatched by the Mustangs’ competition on the court.
During their 2014 nonconference odyssey, the Mustangs twice played teams from the powerful Mountain West Conference. They opened up against Nevada in a hostile environment in Lawlor Events Center and later travelled to Fresno State to play the Bulldogs.
The Mustangs then hosted Delaware, a team that nearly upset Michigan State in last year’s NCAA tournament, in the Central Coast’s first-ever game featuring two teams coming off an NCAA tournament berth on Nov. 21.
They faced four teams from the treacherous West Coast Conference (WCC), including Saint Mary’s, San Francisco, Santa Clara and the now-No. 7 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, whom they played inside the 17,072-seat KeyArena in Seattle.
The Mustangs held both Fresno State and Nevada to 65 points or fewer, despite the losses. They put on a show against Delaware with a three-point shooting clinic in a home win. They held Gonzaga to 63 points of offense, a feat only No. 3 Arizona has been able to pull off this year, and the green-and-gold downed Santa Clara and San Francisco to finish a solid 2-2 against the WCC.
And don’t look now, but the Mustangs have jumped to first in the nation in ball control. Their 8.5 turnovers per game leads comfortably over the next team, Wisconsin, and is on pace to set an NCAA record.
Though it’s still early, the Mustangs’ maturity in ball-handling has gone to show that head coach Joe Callero’s fundamentals-abound pass-and-catch offense does indeed mean the Mustangs can hang with anyone, anywhere.
Daunting as it once seemed, the Mustangs come out of their early season calendar with a 7-5 record and, more importantly, a visible confidence, which they will no doubt be drawing on when they touch down in Hawaii to open up a Big West schedule that is anything but a vacation.
Hawaii will enter the match with an impressive 11-4 record. Cal Poly, however, will hope to add to their 5-1 record against Hawaii in the Callero era and join San Francisco — who the Mustangs beat three short weeks ago — as one of the few teams to have defeated Hawaii this year.
The Mustangs then turn to their first home conference game when they host Blue-Green rival UC Santa Barbara on Jan. 10. Though the Gauchos were picked to finish just ahead of Cal Poly at second in the Big West in preseason polls, the Mustangs can hang their hat on being undefeated at home this season and being 27-14 overall under Callero against Big West opponents inside Mott Athletics Center.
The Mustangs will then travel south to face Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge, both teams that received first-place votes in conference predictions, Jan. 15 and Jan. 17.
The Mustangs, who received three first-place votes to UC Irvine’s conference-leading nine, will face the Anteaters in Irvine on Jan. 29.
In a Big West Conference packed with talent and challenging home environments, preseason polls will not mean much. This is a league, after all, that was successfully predicted by no one last year when the Mustangs fit into the glass slipper and, against all odds, brought home the conference championship.
In other words, when the Mustangs finally land in Hawaii to transition from a tough nonconference schedule to a tougher conference one, don’t expect the fasten your seatbelt sign to be turned off.