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At the dawn of a basketball season that follows the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s historic run to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, head coach Joe Callero took the team up the winding road to Hearst Castle for some sight-seeing.
The field trip wasn’t exactly celebratory, though. Callero, it turned out, was more worried about the rugged coastline far below the Enchanted Hill than he was the castle atop it.
“We went back down from looking at Hearst Castle,” Callero says. “We went down to San Simeon State Park and we camped in tents and I said, ‘Well, see you’re not living in a castle now are you?’
“It was kind of a euphemism about ‘that’s over, that’s done; this year’s about building our own tournament.’”
Coming off the improbable run that saw the Mustangs overcome a 6-10 Big West Conference regular-season record to earn a conference tournament championship and subsequent NCAA tournament bid, the Mustangs again face unfavorable odds heading into the 2014-15 season.
Due in large part to the departure of statistical and emotional leaders Chris Eversley and Kyle Odister, who graduated, the Mustangs have been picked by members of the media to finish sixth in the Big West.
To add to those losses, sophomore guard Taylor Sutlive and junior forward Zach Gordon have already been lost for the season due to injury.
While both Sutlive and Gordon have a redshirt year available, which could add a year of eligibility onto their careers, the immediate future without them means the Mustangs will have to make due.
“Hopefully the team does remember the work it took to get (to the tournament) and sustain emotional highs and lows,” Callero said.
“You can have some injuries and have somebody else step up. We experienced injuries and losing streaks but we didn’t put our head down… that’s the character of our team right now.”
And with less continuity from last year, the Mustangs may also be forced to adopt some new looks on the court to win.
“We may have foul trouble, you may have injury situations, so we may change philosophies real quickly,” Callero said. “We have made a commitment to running whatever we got to do to win a game.
“When parents ask us what are we — a man team, a zone team, a fast break team — I say we try to be a winning team, we aren’t a slave to any one theory. We believe that all things can really be effective.”
While player personnel is something that will never be set in stone, the Mustangs’ schedule is.
And it’s not easy.
With matchups against several elite mid-major teams, including a neutral-location game against Gonzaga (the team picked to win the West Coast Conference), experts, including Callero himself, aren’t banking on Cal Poly to collect a lot of wins, either.
“When you play three, four, five nationally ranked teams, possibly a top-10 team in the nation, I think that you’re going to see consistently that we’re not going to have a glamourous, sexy record.” Callero said. “We’re out to play the best and travel the country… we don’t try to lose any games, but we’re not going to shy away from the best competition.”
The Mustangs play their home opener tonight against San Francisco State at 7 p.m.
All said, if Callero gets it his way, the fate of the season won’t end up having anything to do with off-court issues, be them the picks of experts, injuries or scheduling. It will depend on execution.
“We’re not afraid of failure. We’re not looking at records, we’re looking at progress,” he said. “We’re looking at making the right plays, you know? The metrics are about making the right plays, not necessarily winning the games.
“If you do that, you could get real good at the end of the season and you might be real competitive and have a chance to do well at the end of the year.”
That’s a lesson this team hasn’t forgotten. And whether you expect them to defy the odds and make it back to that castle in the sky or not, one thing you can expect this year is a winding road.
For more coverage on the Cal Poly men’s basketball team, check out a trailer for “After the Madness,” a documentary series premiering in 2015.