Ben Rozak

A little more than a year ago, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team did something it had done just once since 1959: win at UC Santa Barbara. Because the Big West Conference rivals each returned many of their key contributors, coaches and media picked both the Central Coast squads to finish atop the conference, with UCSB in first. Midway through the second round of conference play, though, both teams find themselves scrapping to climb out of the middle of the pack.

They’ll spar for better footing in Santa Barbara at 7 p.m. tonight.

“We’re going into a hostile crowd, but I think that we’re going to feed off of that and enjoy being there and play well,” Cal Poly center Titus Shelton said. “It’s always intense.”

Sophomore guard Lorenzo Keeler and freshman guard Shawn Lewis are among the few Mustangs who haven’t already experienced Thunderdome animosity.

“It’s a great rivalry,” said Cal Poly head coach Kevin Bromley. “It’ll be great for Lorenzo and Shawn, who’ve never seen that environment before – (they’re) going to go down there and get some verbal abuse a little bit. It makes it even sweeter.”

What was sweetest in the teams’ most recent meeting, UCSB’s 75-60 win Jan. 19, was Gauchos senior guard Alex Harris’ jump shot.

Harris, the conference’s leading scorer, at 20.7 points per game, and its best 3-point shooter, at 48.7 percent, lit the Mustangs up for 31 points on 8-of-20 shooting. He was 5 for 9 from beyond the 3-point line, and 10 for 12 from the free-throw line.

“We couldn’t contain the basketball,” Bromley said. “We just could not keep the basketball in front of us, and that allowed us to really have to rotate and help on the dribble penetration, which then allowed Alex Harris to get loose for 3s.”

But the fourth-place Gauchos (17-6, 6-4), who have stammered through a 7-5 stretch after opening the season 10-1, have cooled off a bit, and were swept Saturday by UC Irvine, which is ironically in fifth place.

“You don’t know where their mindset will be,” Bromley said. “I know they’re a little disappointed, but they’re having a great year. (UCSB head coach Bob Williams) said his team was shell-shocked and they’re a little down.”

The Gauchos’ 65-59 loss was the latest example of the unpredictability of the conference’s pecking order; on Jan. 28, sixth-place Cal Poly (9-13, 4-6) edged first-place Pacific 69-64.

Six-foot-eight, 230-pound UCSB junior forward Chris Devine, the Gauchos’ second-leading scorer, with 12.8 points per outing, shouldn’t pose too much of a threat for the Mustangs on his own, Bromley said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll do a good job on Devine,” he said. “My concern is keeping the basketball in front of us off the bounce.”

Still, though, the Mustangs, who gave up 13 second-half offensive rebounds in their 80-67 loss Saturday to Cal State Fullerton, can stand to improve their interior tenacity, Bromley said.

“Underneath, on second-chance points we’ve got to get tougher and rebound the basketball,” he said.

Shelton agrees the Mustangs, who give up the most rebounds per game in the conference (37.1), need to hold their inside ground better.

“We’ve got to be tough at the end of games and get rebounds,” he said.

From the perimeter and charity stripe alike, Cal Poly’s shooting consistency has also been a struggle. The Mustangs rank last in the conference in both 3-point shooting (29.7 percent) and free-throw shooting (65.6 percent).

“We need better 3-point and free-throw shooting consistency,” Bromley said. “Sometimes they’ve got the mojo going on and sometimes they don’t.”

Cal Poly will have to continue adjusting to the absence of former starting senior guard Dawin Whiten, who has missed three straight games due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot, for which season-ending surgery has been scheduled, Bromley said Wednesday.

“We’re adjusting well,” Shelton said. “We have great players who were on the bench before.”

Although the playing time of Keeler, Lewis and sophomore forward Charles Anderson have increased the most, Bromley said practice and opponents will largely influence how the void is filled.

“It’s how the week goes, and people have got to keep battling for minutes,” he explained. “This time of year there’s no magic drill or whatever – the guys have got to be playing together and playing with confidence and having fun.”

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