Ryan Chartrand

He takes the ball on the wing and reverse pivots to face the basket, the ball clasped gently with his right hand tilted ever so slightly behind the leather sphere. He gives the defender a quick jab step, feeling his opponent out before making his next move.

He again makes a quick jab step, then immediately leans his head back and pumps the ball barely above his head. The defender bites, leaping into the air to block a shot that isn’t there.

With his defender helpless, Derek Stockalper explodes toward the basket – make that propels himself with deceptive speed towards the basket. Two steps and an easy layup. The defender didn’t have a chance against Stockalper’s vast array of old-school trickery.

Stockalper isn’t the flashiest player on the court. You won’t see his crossover dribble sending any opponents sprawling to the floor; he doesn’t block many shots, pick many pockets or throw it down in traffic. He looks like a defensive end, somebody who could really mash on the low post (if he were a bit taller), yet he’s a lights-out shooter with about the quickest draw in the West.

Cal Poly men’s basketball doesn’t attract Greg Odens or Kevin Durants. Although a California native, Chase Budinger has quite possibly never heard of California Polytechnic State University of San Luis Obispo. High-profile college talent doesn’t often make it to mid-majors like Cal Poly.

Cal Poly starts a center who is only 6-foot-7. Its “power” forward stands a mere 6-foot-6 and is listed at a generous 220 pounds. The backup power forward stands 6-foot-8, but tips the scale at just 200 pounds.

The Mustangs won’t physically intimidate anybody, but that doesn’t mean Cal Poly can’t play.

Cal Poly will open Big West Conference Tournament play Friday as the No. 2 seed in the semifinal round. If the Mustangs win Friday at 9 p.m. on ESPNU, it will play for a trip to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. The NCAA Tournament is a long way away.

The Mustangs are hardly guaranteed a spot in the title game. First, they’ll likely have to get past No. 3 seed Cal State Fullerton (assuming the quarterfinals go according to plan). The Titans have an NBA-bound point guard in senior Bobby Brown who will surely look to make his last games in a Cal State Fullerton uniform memorable.

Waiting for the Mustangs (should they win in the semis) would likely be regular-season champion Long Beach State, which is ranked 18th in CollegeInsider.com’s Mid-Major Poll.

Even though the 49ers beat Cal Poly twice, they trailed by as many as 14 in the second half at Cal Poly on Feb. 8 before coming back to win the game 80-77. The Mustangs can play with Long Beach State. They just need to play an entire 40 minutes.

For the Mustangs to be successful, they’re going to need to focus on five things:

1. Let it rain from 3-point land – The Mustangs are ninth in Division I in 3-pointers made with 263 this season. If the shots are falling, it’s tough to beat any team that can connect on 15 3-pointers in a given night.

2. Get a grip on the defensive boards – Cal Poly gives up more than 12 offensive rebounds per game. Every extra possession counts come tournament time. Part of the problem is Cal Poly’s small lineup, but another part is the increased use of a zone defense this season. It’s harder to find a body to box out in a zone, but the Mustangs will have to find a way to fill the gaps and minimize extra possessions for opposing teams.

3. D-D-D.DEFENSE – Cal Poly has been scoring in bunches over their last 10 games, but it hasn’t pulled away for big-time wins in many of those contests. The Mustangs are allowing 71.8 points per game and opponents are shooting a scary 43.6 percent from the field. Scoring 91 points is all well and good, but if you allow 99, as the Mustangs did in a 99-91 home loss to Cal State Fullerton on Dec. 28, you can’t expect to win too many games.

4. Take advantage of the charity stripe – The free throw is meant to be an easy shot, a penalty against the other team for either fouling in the act of shooting or going over the limit in fouls for a half. Unfortunately, the free-throw line has been anything but charitable to the Mustangs this season. Cal Poly shoots 63.2 percent from the line. To the Mustangs’ credit, the number has steadily risen over the last dozen or so games.

5. Protect the basketball – The Mustangs turn the ball over 13 times per game, nothing to worry too much about. However, the team can go through spurts of careless mistakes. Avoid those hazardous spurts of negligence and the Mustangs might be able to close out opponents more regularly.

A few weeks back, Stockalper commented that the Mustangs could make a run for the Big West title. It seemed unfathomable that the team could turn the season around following a 1-3 conference start, but this group of “misfit” players who can drain 3s from all corners of the court are on fire – and they’re poised to put their dancing shoes on.

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