“Hopefully the team does remember the work it took to get (to the tournament) and sustain emotional highs and lows,” head coach Joe Callero said. | Ian Billings/Mustang News

Ian Billings/Mustang News

Fifth-year head coach Joe Callero led the Cal Poly men’s basketball team to its first NCAA Tournament berth in school history.

Stephan Teodosescu

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Head coach Joe Callero is weird. Maybe it has to do with the fact he’s one of 16 children.

But maybe weird is just what the doctor ordered for a losing basketball team making its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Cal Poly men’s basketball team entered this past weekend’s Big West Conference Tournament having lost nine of its previous 11 games. The Mustangs (13-19) won just two games against Division I non-conference foes this year, got drubbed by rival UC Santa Barbara by 16 points on its home floor in the regular season finale and got swept in the season series by nine-win UC Davis — the lone team to miss the conference tournament.

So how do you explain what happened during those three days in March at the Honda Center?

“The one thing we agreed on is to be good at something you have to be a little weird,” senior guard Chris Eversley said. “Coach has his ways in which he thinks about the game, he’s very cerebral in the way that he coaches and the way that he teaches.”

This past Thursday, five days after the Gauchos’ romp of Cal Poly, the seventh-seeded Mustangs (eight teams make the conference tournament) shocked No. 2 UC Santa Barbara with a thorough dismantling of one of the most dangerous teams in the Big West.

Cal Poly won by 31 points and held Big West Player of the Year Alan Williams to 14 points. By comparison, Williams scored 23 in that final game at Mott Athletics Center and 33 in the first meeting between the teams in January.

Then, in the semifinals, Cal Poly squeaked out a three-point win against the No. 1 seed UC Irvine and negated the Anteaters’ 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye by dropping floaters and working in the paint to score easy baskets against the Big West Defensive Player of the Year.

The Mustangs pulled off the trifecta in the championship game the following night against Cal State Northridge. In another back-and-forth affair, Cal Poly found itself trailing at halftime. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they were 0-16 on the season when behind entering the locker room.

Unfortunately for the Matadors, this was a different Cal Poly team than anyone had seen all season.

“Even when the times got hard, when we lost nine of 11 games, nobody in that locker room believed the season was over,” Eversley said. “Our whole thing was, we started off the conference season 3-0, and we’re supposed to finish it 3-0.”

Cal Poly did just that as it got a game-winning 3-pointer from true freshman guard Ridge Shipley with 13 seconds to go and a critical charge from sophomore forward Zach Gordon with four seconds left to give the Mustangs their first ever Big West tournament championship and berth to the big dance.

“Everyone knew what was at stake we all kind of hunkered down,” Gordon said. “Heart and teamwork describes these last three days.”

Now, Cal Poly will have to weather talk of it being among the worst teams in recent memory to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Florida International (1995), Central Florida (1996), Fairfield (1997) all finished with 11-18 records, while Florida A&M (1999) and Oakland (2005) entered the tourney with a 12-18 record. A 1961 George Washington team holds the worst winning percentage of any squad that made it at .360 (9-16). But those are the only teams with worse winning percentages than Cal Poly.

What that all means is the Mustangs will have to play in a First Four game to vie for the No. 16 seed in the Midwest Region and to play in the Round of 64. Cal Poly will match up against Texas Southern on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio for the right to face No. 1 and undefeated Wichita State (34-0) on Friday.

In the Las Vegas books, Cal Poly is favored by about three points against Texas Southern (19-14) as of Monday night. Against the Shockers, they aren’t even expected to put up a fight.

But Callero wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My crazy, weird thinking is a 16 has never beat a one seed,” Callero said. “I don’t care where we go, as long as we are the 16 seed.”

To put things in perspective, Wichita State has 21 more wins than Cal Poly does and the Shockers have fewer losses in the last three years combined than the Mustangs had this season.

But then again, it’s March — the month of upsets and Cinderella stories. So it begs the question, how much weirder can it get?

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