Brennan Angel

Everyone was talking about it before the season began.

And now, it is obvious that what most thought would be the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s biggest strength is just that – depth. The Mustangs are in the top half of the Big West Conference in scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage, but nobody averages more than 14 points per game. All five starters put up at least nine points an outing.

“I think that’s what separates us from everyone else in the conference, is that depth,” Cal Poly junior post player Dreshawn Vance said. “We have many guards, many wings, a lot of post players. Anyone can go off any night. We kill opposing teams with our depth because we have fresh bodies coming in to do the dirty work.”

One of those doing the dirty work is Vance, a 6-foot-8 transfer from the University of Portland who averages 6.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game in only 17 minutes. He was named Big West Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 11 points, 8.5 boards and one block in only 19.5 minutes in two games last week.

Depth is key for any team this late in the season when players are banged up and worn down from the long haul of a regular season spanning more than four months.

Cal Poly (16-10, 7-5 Big West) has used that to its advantage, winning 10 of its last 12 games. Currently tied for third with UC Santa Barbara – over which they own the tiebreaker for sweeping the regular-season series – the Mustangs hope to shoot into second place this week.

Cal Poly hosts Cal State Northridge at 7 tonight and Pacific on Senior Day at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Securing one of the top two spots in conference is crucial because those teams receive an automatic berth in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament, which runs March 7 to 10 at the Anaheim Convention Center. The top four teams in conference earn a bye in the first round.

The Mustangs are four straight wins away from reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since moving to the Division I level for the 1994-95 season.

“Isn’t that exciting,” Cal Poly head coach Kevin Bromley said. “Their biggest goal is to get in the NCAA Tournament. You’ve got to let them think about that.”

Still, Bromley doesn’t want his team to revel in March Madness dreams before they become reality.

“I don’t think we’ve done anything yet,” he said.

Vance agreed.

“Everyone’s talking about how good we’re playing right now, but no one’s really seen anything yet,” Vance said. “Two games this week and we hope that we only have to play two games next week. . We talk about (the tournament) a little bit. It’s very exciting to know. At the same time, we have to maintain our focus and take care of our home games this week and day by day after that. Knowing that the NCAA Tournament’s right there at our fingertips is pushing us.”

Vance said the Mustangs still must hone their execution on both ends of the floor.

“Of course we’re happy with the wins, but we still have a lot of things to do,” he said. “We have to work on our offense and defense to get better.”

Specifically, Bromley said the most important statistic is field-goal percentage defense. That’s a category in which Cal Poly was at one time this season one-hundredth of a percentage point from leading the Big West, but is now third at .435.

Bromley thinks that could be lower.

“Defensively, we’re not bad,” he said. “There have been more (opposing) possessions because we’re getting up and down. Points per game isn’t as important to me as field-goal percentage defense.”

Cal Poly has been getting up and down the floor as well as anyone of late, scoring more than 85 points in five of its last seven games.

Vance said defense is something the team has focused on.

“I remember back when we were 6-8, defensively we weren’t that sound,” he said. “We put an emphasis (on defense) every day in practice.”

Rebounding could be key tonight, as seventh-place Cal State Northridge (14-14, 5-7) leads the eight-team Big West in rebounding margin (plus-6.6 per game).

As for Saturday’s Senior Day game against Pacific, Bromley hopes the emotions of a final home game for the team’s three seniors do not interfere with carrying out the game plan.

“The Senior Night thing can be good or bad,” he said. “Just because you’re playing at home doesn’t mean anything.”

Bromley said he might start reserve forward Joe Henry (1.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg) on Saturday. The team’s other two seniors are starting forwards Derek Stockalper (14.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Tyler McGinn (11 ppg, 3.3 rpg).

Vance summed it up best when discussing what this week means for Cal Poly’s ultimate goal.

“We all want the same thing,” he said, “and that’s to get the bye and get to the NCAA Tournament.”

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