Cal Poly Men’s Basketball didn’t start off the season on the note they had hoped.
Coming off of a season where the program lost 18 games in a row in Big West play, the team opened up the season with a 59-44 loss to Division 2 Cal State LA 59-44 at home in an exhibition game.
The Mustangs jumped out to an early lead, but the Eagles put on a full-court press and forced the Mustangs’ offense into 20 turnovers while holding them to 22% shooting from the field.
“You can never take for granted of playing in a Division 1 college basketball game and I thought we did that in the exhibition game,” head coach John Smith said. “We didn’t put our best foot forward, this community deserves it, the school deserves it.”
However, the team bounced back with an 80-62 win over Division 3 University of La Verne. Junior center from Southern Idaho Joel Armotrading led by 21 points and five blocks from junior center, who transferred to Cal Poly from the College of Southern Idaho.
What happened last season
A season ago, the Mustangs fielded one of the most talented teams Smith has had in his tenure. Alimamy Koroma and Brantly Stevenson both returned as key offensive threats while the team added more veteran size and skill on the roster, including Chance Hunter, Bryan Penn-Johnson and Nick Fleming.
The team performed the best they ever had under Smith in nonconference play, with a 6-6 record. The Mustangs led the University of Washington until late in the second half, which would’ve been the program’s first Pac-12 win since 2012.
However, after winning their first conference game of the season against CSU Northridge, the Mustangs proceeded to drop 18 straight. In a majority of games, the Mustangs were within single digits but couldn’t seem to close out games.
The team dealt with injuries to Sanders, Camren Pierce and Bryan Penn-Johnson, and the offense hit a cold spell.
Due to UC San Diego not being eligible for postseason play, the Mustangs squeaked into the conference tournament and upset Long Beach State by 20 points. The Mustangs battled against UC Santa Barbara in the quarterfinals but ultimately fell.
The Mustangs return six players to the 2023-2024 team, but only one with starting experience in Kobe Sanders. The majority of the rotation departed, whether it was due to graduation or leaving via the transfer portal.
A new identity
Last season, Cal Poly only averaged 60.8 points per contest, and with Koroma, Stevenson Chance Hunter, Trevon Taylor and Nick Fleming all departing, the team lost 51.5 of those points.
One of those potential standouts could be Sanders.
Sanders started 20 games for the Mustangs last season but missed nine games due to injury.
Kobe is a 6-foot-8 guard with strong distribution skills, who can space the floor and guard multiple positions on defense. He averaged 7.7 points per game last year, but with more opportunities with the ball in his hands, that is likely to improve.
The team was busy in the transfer portal over the summer, landing five new faces. Headlining the group is a graduate transfer from the University of California point guard Jarred Hyder.
To fill the void left by Koroma, the Mustangs brought in Armotrading to play the center position.
Armotrading has some of the same back-to-the-basket post-scoring ability as Koroma, but his impact largely stems from this athleticism, skying for putbacks and lobs while blocking shots around the basket.
The London, England native accumulated 84 blocks last season for Southern Idaho.
Armotrading had a dominant Cal Poly regular season debut, tallying 21 points and adding five blocks against La Verne.
In his regular season debut against La Verne, Armotrading tallied 21 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
“I just try to play my game, strong and athletic,” Armotrading said. “It’s a new team as we learn to play with each other, we’re only going to keep getting better.”
Jones finished the game with four points, shooting 2-6 from the field, but he’s shown flashes of being a strong shot-creator.
That being said, the Mustangs are projected to finish last in the Big West, according to the Big West Coaches poll.
A lot of negative projections surround Cal Poly, but with a group of newcomers, the Mustangs will look to turn around their fortunes.