Dead week is generally known as the time when college students work overtime to finish their assigned work before final exams.

Cal Poly’s happens to coincide with the toughest test faced all season by its men’s basketball team.

The Mustangs will have to come alive and cram at just the right time by doing something that’s never been done at the Big West Conference Tournament – winning four times in as many nights – to reach their first NCAA Tournament.

Their attempt starts in the Anaheim Convention Center against UC Riverside at 8:30 tonight.

“You feel like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders if you start thinking about the big picture of, ‘We’ve got to win four games in four days,’ ” said Cal Poly head coach Kevin Bromley. “You’ve really got to look at it possession-by-possession.”

Cal Poly, which concluded its regular season with a 97-67 loss at Cal State Northridge on Saturday in its third defeat of the season by at least 30 points, and seventh by no fewer than 20, will simply need to play with confidence, Bromley says.

“March Madness is crazy, and young men do get a lot of confidence and they get ‘uh-huhs’ going on, and it can springboard really quickly,” Bromley said.

Key to the Mustangs’ hopes, he added, will be that his players “have got some moxie to them,” revealed “when they’ll make a pretty good play after making a couple really bad plays.”

It was the Matadors who enjoyed plenty of the former Saturday, when they made 59.7 percent of their shots from the floor overall and cruised to a 54-29 advantage in the second half, when Cal Poly was just 9 of 35 from the floor.

“Our team’s done a good job of flushing when we had bad games, so we’re going to flush that game,” said Mustangs junior center Titus Shelton.

Although Cal Poly won thrice this season following 20-point losses, one of those victories came against NAIA Division II Menlo, and the other two by 12 and six points, respectively, opposite Long Beach State (6-24, 3-13), the tournament’s eighth and final seed.

In order to surprise in Anaheim, the Mustangs will need to take out their frustrations, Bromley emphasized.

“In that locker room after the game against (Cal State) Northridge, you could hear a pin drop,” Bromley said. “And those young men in there were devastated. It’s no fun to get your butt kicked, so what you do is take that feeling that you have and you do something with it in your next practice and game to get it out of your system.”

The sixth-seeded Mustangs (12-17, 7-9) will get an opportunity in that vein against the No. 7 seed Highlanders (8-20, 4-12), to whom they lost 62-58 on the road Feb. 2 but edged 70-63 in overtime at Mott Gym on Feb. 28.

“They’re a real scrappy team, and a hard-working team,” Shelton said. “It’s going to be a battle. They’re just active. They play really hard – they crash the offensive boards extremely hard, they’re going to push, they’re going to grab, they’re going to set illegal screens.”

Illegal screens or not, the Highlanders, who trailed for just three minutes and 12 seconds in the second half of their overtime loss at Cal Poly, are led by Larry Cunningham.

The senior guard, the Big West’s fifth-leading scorer at 15.9 points per contest, is now UC Riverside’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,456 points.

The Highlanders, though, enter the tournament last in the conference in scoring at 59.7 points per game and are yet to win three straight this season.

Meanwhile, Cal Poly, which entered the season picked by the coaches and media alike to finish second in the conference behind top seed UC Santa Barbara, has experienced more of a roller coaster.

It has featured highs, including an 83-69 win over co-Western Athletic Conference champion Utah State on Nov. 15 and a 69-64 victory against fourth-seeded Pacific on Jan. 28 that was nationally televised on ESPN2.

Among the lows, however, were a stretch between those victories when the Mustangs lost six of seven, and a string of backcourt injuries – the most serious of which was suffered by senior guard Dawin Whiten, the school’s 12th all-time leading scorer with 1,104 points. He missed the Mustangs’ 10 final regular-season outings due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

“We’ve had a lot of changes, losing people, with injuries and stuff like that,” Shelton said.

Still, though, Shelton says Cal Poly, which advanced to the Big West championship before losing to Long Beach State 94-83 March 10, 2007, is provided an advantage from playing in the final a year ago, even if it was with since-graduated sharpshooting forward Derek Stockalper, a two-time All-Big West First Team member now playing for Switzerland’s Lugano Tigers.

“Experience is always big,” said Shelton, who scored eight points and pulled down six rebounds in the final a year ago. “I think that’ll be a strong point for us, because a lot of our guys have been there before. We have experience, we know what it’s like, how hard the competition is and how we need to play.”

In the event of a Mustangs win, they would play third-seeded Cal State Fullerton at 6 p.m. Thursday if UC Irvine beats Long Beach State in the other Wednesday contest. If Long Beach State were to win, the Mustangs would take on Pacific 30 minutes after the end of the 6 p.m. game Thursday.

Despite being swept by the tournament’s top three seeds, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton, Shelton espouses confidence.

“Basically, everyone’s 0-0 right now,” he said. “It’s good to get a fresh start. If we play confident and poised and take care of the ball we have as good of a chance as anyone else.”

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