With just two games separating seven different teams in the Big West standings midway through the conference schedule, no team’s spot will be easily secured in this season’s Big West Tournament.
One game ahead of No. 8 UC Davis, and one game behind No. 2 Cal State Northridge, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team is looking to elevate itself above the rest in the second half of conference play.
With five of their conference games decided by five points or less, head coach Joe Callero said the close level of competition between teams means Cal Poly will have to play its best every game.
“There are no more upsets in the Big West,” Callero said. “Any team can beat anybody. (Other leagues) say that, but here it’s reflected in the records. That’s why it’s exciting. Everyone can say, ‘Hey we are only one or two games out of second.’”
The Mustangs (9-11, 4-4 Big West) finished the first eight games of their conference schedule tied for third with Pacific and last season’s conference champion, UC Santa Barbara.
Cal Poly has dominated the Big West defensively, holding conference opponents to 60.1 points per game. The Mustangs are first in the conference in defensive field goal percentage and defensive 3-point percentage, holding opponents to 40.1 percent and 23.5 percent respectively, while also tied for first with 3.3 blocked shots per game.
But Cal Poly continues to struggle offensively, placing last in every offensive category, averaging 56.9 points per game with a 38.1 percent shooting percentage and making 67 percent of its free-throws.
Cal Poly’s offense has been led by its only two double-digit scorers, guard Shawn Lewis and forward David Hanson. Lewis is averaging 14.1 points per game while leading the team with 36 steals, and Hanson, who has scored 20 or more points in the last five games, is averaging 16.1 points per game.
This time last season the Mustangs had one of the program’s best conference starts at 5-2, before losing five straight and dropping out of the top half of the conference.
Hanson said the team has learned from last season, and knows it cannot afford to let a losing streak happen again.
“I think we learned from last year,” Hanson said. “We got on a roll and we let off the gas pedal and we went on a five-game skid. We’ve got to not let up and contine to play hard. I think last year we got ahead of ourselves and thought we had arrived and obviously we hadn’t. So we have to be careful of that this year.”
Cal Poly began conference play this season with a 69-53 loss to first place No. 1 Long Beach State, before going on a three-game win-streak over Pacific, UC Davis and Cal State Fullerton. Each of the three wins was decided by five points or less.
Lewis said it is vital that Cal Poly continues to win close games and concentrate hard in the final minutes each game to stay near the top in the Big West.
“We’re glad where we are in the standings right now, but we definitely think we can do better,” Lewis said. “Teams that are going to be in the top half of the conference are going to be the teams that are going to win the close games and we definitely won a lot of close games so far.”
The Mustangs then lost three of their next four matchups, including a one-point buzzer-beating loss to conference rival UC Santa Barbara. That one loss versus the Gauchos dropped the Mustangs from second place to fifth.
Cal Poly will have to prove itself again as it faces each Big West opponent one more time before the conference tournament. The Mustangs will face the Gauchos on the road in another televised match in their last conference game of the season.
Cal Poly will host its next two conference games against UC Davis this Thursday, Feb. 3 and Saturday, Feb. 5.