The Mustangs will look to pick up their first win in 2023 in the conference tournament. Credit: Owen Roberts | Mustang News, 2023

After the best non-conference record under head coach John Smith, Cal Poly Men’s Basketball stumbled to a program-worst 18-game losing streak. Now, they’re heading into the Big West tournament.

The Mustangs qualified for postseason play despite having the worst conference record because UC San Diego is in its transition period to Division-I and doesn’t qualify for the tournament. 

On Saturday, March 4, the Mustangs fell to UC Riverside 73-72 in overtime, which put their record at 7-24 and 1-18 in conference play. The team has yet to add to the win column in the 2023 calendar year. 

“We’ve been trying to talk to the guys about staying in the moment,” Smith said. “You can’t live in the rearview mirror. You got to live in the present. We have an opportunity to start the season over Tuesday and try and win four games straight.”

Early in non-conference play, the Mustangs rattled off four straight wins, including convincing victories over Idaho, Cal Baptist and Portland State. 

The streak came to an end after a near upset of the University of Washington where the Mustangs led by 11 points at halftime and didn’t relinquish the lead until the last ten minutes of the game.

The promise shown early in the year evaporated as the team has struggled in late-game situations. In the team’s two losses to UC Riverside, the Mustangs fell in overtime. Against UC Davis, the team gave up a double-digit lead in the last five minutes of the game.

Even though the Mustangs have been competitive in a majority of their matchups, the losses have continued to pile up. 

According to Smith, the team needs to improve with “execution down the stretch and just being confident in the shots we’ve taken practicing and taking the same way in games.”

“We’ve been in every game down the stretch and a couple of guys get good looks and…turn them down,” Smith said.

Big West tournament outlook

The Mustangs will be without junior guard Kobe Sanders in the tournament. The 6-6 San Diego guard carried the majority of the ball-handling duties throughout the season but will miss the entirety of the postseason.

Junior guard Camren Pierce will “hopefully” make his return Tuesday, according to Smith.

The Mustangs face off against a difficult opponent in Long Beach State in round one. 

While the team has kept up with nearly every Big West team, including No. 1 seed UC Santa Barbara, the Mustangs have fallen to Long Beach State by 37 combined points across two matchups and have failed to surpass the 60-point mark in both games.

Smith pointed to junior guard Brantly Stevenson as a player who will need to step up in the tournament. 

The former Etiwanda High School standout player is coming off a 32-point effort in the Mustangs’ final regular season game. Stevenson is averaging 10.5 points a contest and has been a consistent presence on both ends. 

Former Big West All-Conference Honorable mention, senior center Alimamy Koroma, will need to find his scoring touch around the hoop for the Mustangs to improve their offense. 

Koroma, who is in his final year at Cal Poly, leads the team in scoring just ahead of Stevenson with 10.6 points per game. 

However, opponents have keyed in on his low-post scoring ability, and as a result, Koroma’s field goal percentage has dropped from 50% in the 2021-2022 season to a career-worst 46.8%.

While the team clearly isn’t at 100% in terms of health, Smith believes the team still has a fighting chance to make a run in the tournament.

“Physically we’re limping in, mentally we’re eager and anxious to turn this around,” Smith said. 

The Mustangs will travel to the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada to take on Long Beach State on Tuesday, March 7 at 8:30 p.m. in the first round of the Big West tournament.