About a month ago, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team may have hit its low point.
Not only did UC Riverside, then in last place at 1-7 in the Big West Conference, defeat the Mustangs 62-58, it was the first game Cal Poly played without senior guard Dawin Whiten, who had started 18 of its 19 games to that point.
Now, with a younger lineup that’s had to learn on the fly, the Mustangs will get another shot at the Highlanders at 7 tonight.
“I’m sure I can speak for our players – it’s a sense of, (the Highlanders) are not going to sneak up on you,” said Cal Poly head coach Kevin Bromley.
With a win tonight, UC Riverside (7-17, 3-9), which has won two straight, could pull within a game of the sixth-place Mustangs (10-15, 5-7) in the Big West standings.
“It’s a new game,” said Cal Poly senior forward Matt Hanson. “We just have to play our style of basketball, and a win will take care of itself.”
After topping UC Irvine 85-76 Feb. 20, the Highlanders handled Hawaii 79-62 Saturday for their second-straight victory, thanks in large part to 57.4-percent shooting from the floor.
Leading the way in that effort was senior guard Larry Cunningham, who was 10 of 15 from the floor for 31 points to become UC Riverside’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,390 points.
“He’s a big part of their offense,” Hanson said. “He’ll be a big challenge for our ‘two’ and ‘three’ men.”
Even with the hot shooting, the Highlanders managed to outrebound the Rainbow Warriors 30-23 while claiming seven steals.
“We’re not looking past them,” Bromley said. “They’re a team that’s undersized, (but) they’re physical. I’m expecting a real tiger by the tail on Thursday – I’m expecting a very good basketball game.”
While Cunningham has yet to miss a game for UC Riverside, Cal Poly finds itself continuing to adjust to the absence of not only Whiten, who is likely out for the rest of the season due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot, but also junior guard Chaz Thomas, who has missed three games in a row because of an ankle condition.
Thomas, Bromley said Monday, despite seeing him be able to cut in practice, is day-to-day.
“Sometimes by process of elimination, you hope, that group gets closer, and they feel like, ‘Now we’ve got to really do this because we don’t have Chaz, we don’t have Dawin, we’re low in numbers – we’ve got to really come together,’ ” Bromley said. “That’s what you hope happens. I’ve seen teams that don’t do that (but) this group seems to have tremendous character.”
With two guards out, Cal Poly’s post players have forged an increased impact, as the Mustangs are second in the conference in blocks per game (3.2) and have outrebounded three-straight opponents.
“We do outman (UC Riverside) in the post,” Hanson said. “We have bigger post men, and are stronger along the front line. Offensively, we need to attack down low.”
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Cal Poly will return to Mott Gym to host Pacific on Senior Night.
Whiten, Hanson, forward Dreshawn Vance and center Zach Thurow make up the Mustangs’ contingent of elder statesmen in line to be honored.
“We’re very excited – not just the seniors, but all the guys,” Hanson said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
A win against the Tigers, whom the Mustangs edged 69-64 on Jan. 28 on ESPN2, could be pivotal to Cal Poly’s attempt to gather momentum heading into the conference tournament, held in Anaheim from March 12 to 15.
“In our conference, there’s no one really head and shoulders above anybody,” Bromley added. “And I think that the tournament this year is as wide open as it’s ever been.”
Hanson alluded to the players beginning to feel a heightened sense of urgency as the regular season winds down.
“We desperately need these two wins if we want to finish in the top four, which was our goal,” he said.
In the absences of Whiten and Thomas, the roles of junior point guard Trae Clark, sophomore shooting guard Lorenzo Keeler and freshman wing Shawn Lewis have grown dramatically.
In a 76-70 loss at Fresno State on Saturday, Clark didn’t miss a minute, while Keeler and Lewis missed nine minutes altogether while combining for 13-of-29 shooting from the floor en route to 35 points.
Keeler himself seems to have mostly overcome what was initially thought Feb. 18 to possibly be a stress fracture, forcing him to wear a protective boot and miss practice time.
Although the depleted Mustangs rank eighth in the Big West in assists, with 11.4 per contest, Bromley said shooting is more to blame for the low mark than ball movement.
“We’re sharing the basketball extremely well right now,” he explained. “I love the chemistry that we have. We’re giving ourselves an opportunity to win and be in every basketball game. . We’ve just got to make some shots.”