Junior forward Marcellus Garrick attempted a layup during practice. Iliana Arroyos | Mustang News

When the Cal Poly men’s basketball season schedule was first released, one word came to head coach Joe Callero’s mind: challenging.

“We have had philosophy that I’ve stuck with, which is if you wanna get to the NCAA Tournament, you have to play better teams,” Callero said. 

Callero wasn’t kidding around.

The Mustangs will face 11 opponents who went to the NCAA tournament or the National Invitation Tournament last season and several teams from the power-five conferences, including early season road matchups against Stanford, University of California, Berkeley and Southern Methodist University.

“It’s more important to fail and not be afraid to fail,” Callero said. “I’d rather burn out than fade away in this profession. We have athletes, students, faculty and members of the community that want to see these games.”

In addition to increased national exposure and a tougher schedule for the Mustangs to show off to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, their road trips to UC Berkeley, Stanford, Santa Clara University, Southern Methodist University and the GCI Great Alaskan Shootout will also net the men’s basketball program a total of $250,000, according to Callero.

Not all of the big-name games happen on the road. Pepperdine, Fresno State and Princeton will all face the Mustangs inside Mott Gym in early December. 

The Mustangs will try to adjust to the level of competition without two of their most pertinent players from last season’s team, Ridge Shipley and Zach Gordon, who both graduated in spring.

Looking to Martin for defense 

Without Shipley and Gordon, a huge part of the Mustangs’ success on the court will center around the durability of junior forward Josh Martin, along with the continued development of junior guard Donovan Fields and senior guard Victor Joseph.

Unfortunately, Martin hasn’t seen much court time. In his three seasons as a collegiate athlete, the dynamic forward has only managed to play 33 games, roughly one full season, in his collegiate career due to various injuries. Last year, he suffered a season-ending injury in the fifth game of the season.

As for the good news about Martin, “He is ready to go this year,” Callero said.

When Martin can stay on the court, he is a force to be reckoned with. Before his injury last season, he averaged 10.8 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting over 53 percent. Standing at 6 feet 8 inches tall and possessing great leaping ability, Martin is a defensive presence that can change the momentum of the game in the post. With the Mustangs missing Gordon’s rock-solid defense down low, they will need Martin to play well on the defensive end.

Joseph and Fields have large shoes to fill

At the other end of the court, the Mustangs will absolutely miss Shipley’s three-point shooting, driving ability and court vision. However, Joseph and Fields proved last season that they can clearly get buckets. Now that they are going to be the main focus of the offense, Joseph and Fields should be even more prolific on the offensive end of the floor.

Though the Mustangs appear to be in good position to replace the on-court production of Shipley and Gordon, they will still need someone to step up as a clear-cut team captain in place of Shipley. Fortunately for the Mustangs, Fields and Joseph look poised to fill the void of veteran presence in the locker room.

“Ridge was our leader in every sense of the word,” Joseph said. “Me and Don, being the oldest guards on the team, we gotta bring the vocal aspect that Ridge brought.”

Joseph and Fields will try to help the team avoid the second-half collapses that plagued the Mustangs for much of last season. They finished with an 11-22 record and lost several close games despite holding big leads. 

“I think when we are up double digits we got in a relaxed mode,” Joseph said. “We just gotta have that killer instinct. We gotta keep that in our mind, that the game is never over until it’s over.”

Through the challenges and the tough schedule ahead, Fields is confident that if the Mustangs can remain consistent, they have a decent chance of returning to a post-season tournament.

“We won’t back down for anybody,” Fields said. “We believe we can beat anybody on any given night if we listen to our coaches.”

The Mustangs will begin their season against Cal State East Bay Nov. 2 at Mott Athletics Center.

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