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Team preview: Cal Poly

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

(Information in this team report is as of Oct. 1.)

COACH AND PROGRAM

By any measure, Cal Poly was hideous offensively last season.

Pick an offensive statistic. How about three-point percentage? The Mustangs ranked 261st among the 335 Division I teams at 31.1 percent. Assists? 294th at 11.2 per game.

The Mustangs' .389 field goal percentage ranked 322nd. And their scoring offense, an anemic 59.3 points per game? A sickening 329th. The only teams in America with less firepower -- and we use that term loosely -- than Poly were Centenary, Howard, New Hampshire, Toledo, Western Illinois and Southern.

The Mustangs are a nightmare to watch, a slow, plodding team playing an ugly brand of basketball.

And they are loving every minute of it. Because through the power of defense and an annoying habit of dragging opponents into the muck with them, the Mustangs somehow finished second in the Big West last season, and they plan to use the same formula to make a run at the conference's overwhelming favorites this season.

Cal Poly Mustangs

"We take great pride in making the game ugly, because the result is a win," Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said. "The players bought into it and our fan base bought into it -- they were hungry for success. … As a matter of fact, there's a bit of pride about how ugly we can make it and how it's going to bother you but it doesn't bother us."

Poly is the team no one wants to face. Its sticky matchup zone takes away a team's best offensive weapons with startling effectiveness -- Poly finished 25th nationally in field-goal percentage defense (.400), sixth in scoring defense (58.9 ppg) and third in three-point percentage defense (.287) -- forcing teams to rely on second, third or fourth options. And the slow-it-down offense ratchets the opponent's frustration to excruciating levels, to the extent that one rival Big West coach said playing the Mustangs is "like going to the dentist."

Which is exactly what Callero is going for.

"It really is," he said, practically beaming. "We're always a pain to go against. When we play conservative, compact, persistent defense and that real patient, methodical offense, the game gets very boring and you get so few possessions that when you finally get one, you have a birthday party and you blow it."

Callero's philosophy means Poly is rarely blown out. Last season, the Mustangs played nationally ranked San Diego State down to the wire before losing by six on the road. They took UCLA and Cal into the final minutes, falling by 11 and 10, respectively. Only five of their 15 losses were by a larger margin, and 18 of their 30 games were decided by single digits.

The next step, Callero said, is to keep the defense and the pace but add more scoring punch to make the difference in crunch time of all those close games -- or even to keep them from bring close in the first place.

"I think we'll have more -- to use an Al McGuire term -- spurtability," Callero said. "We'll be able to get on a 10-0 run or an 8-0 run and still be consistent and hard-nosed every game. … We really want to have a foundation built on defensive and rebounding, but we've got to be able to explode."

PLAYERS

To that end, help could be on the way. Poly's success last season came in spite of the fact both projected starting guards and the backup center never played a minute. Two of those players -- 6-3 senior point guard Amaurys Fermin (torn ACL) and 6-7 senior center Will Taylor (academics) -- were already back on the floor for Poly's August trip to Costa Rica.

Shooting guard Kyle Odister, a 6-0 redshirt sophomore who averaged 7.8 points per game and made 45.5 percent of his three-pointers as a freshman in 2009-10, is still recovering from post-season surgery to repair a broken ankle that didn't heal on its own during the season. His availability is still uncertain.

If Odister can return at full speed, Poly's backcourt is solid. Fermin was a huge scorer in high school and one of the nation's top playmakers in junior college but academic issues and then injury cost him his first two seasons with the Mustangs. Calero expects big things from him.

On the wing, 6-2 freshman Reese Morgan was a revelation on the Costa Rica trip and will challenge for the starting job even if Odister is back.

Depth comes from 6-0 sophomore point man Jamal Johnson (2.5 ppg, 1.0 apg) and 6-2 sophomore Maliik Love (5.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg), who shared last season's league freshman of the year honors with UC Davis' Josh Ritchart and can fill in at all three perimeter spots.

"If we have a little pressure we can put him at the two, and if we have a lot of pressure, we can put him at the three," Callero said of Love, who started at the point last season. "He's a strong kid, 200 pounds, so we can post him up. He's kind of our utility man."

Callero is hoping 6-1 junior Dylan Royer (2.5 ppg, 0.2 rpg, .455 3PT) or 6-3 senior Matt Titchenal (2.0 ppg. 0.5 rpg), both of whom played little last season, can grow into a larger role at off guard because he would prefer to shift 6-4 junior Chris O'Brien (5.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and 6-5 junior Drake U'u (2.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg) to small forward.

The plan is for them to join 6-5 senior Jordan Lewis (2.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg) in a committee to replace Poly's one significant loss, first-team all-conference forward Shawn Lewis (15.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.4 spg).

The inside game will center around the rebounding of 6-8 senior center Will Donahue (8.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and the versatility of 6-5 senior power forward David Hanson, who earned second-team All-Big West honors after averaging 15.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.0 steals per game.

Hanson is almost the prototypical Poly player. He isn't a spectacular athlete, but he runs off screens for open shots, works hard on the boards and defends well. He'll draw a post defender away from the basket -- more than half of his shots last season were three-pointers -- and slide in for an offensive rebound.

"David's biggest strength is that he's consistent, very unselfish and he knows what's going on," Callero said. "What we're trying to look at is putting David in a model where he is playing better faster. … If he can develop a feel for how to get an open shot in transition, it can take him from a very, very good player to a great player."

Donahue is one of the league's most effective rebounders, finishing fourth in that category in 2010-11 and second to Long Beach State's T.J. Robinson among returning players, even though, Callero said, "he's never gotten a rebound above the rim in his life." Donahue gets the ball through positioning, strength and his powerful hands.

"He just gets his hands near the ball and he suction-cups that thing in and you're not getting it back," Callero said. "He's a position rebounder, an old-school Wes Unseld type, a Paul Silas."

Donahue will be backed up by Taylor, who averaged 4.9 points and 5.0 rebounds in 2009-10.

Behind Hanson is 6-6 sophomore Chris Eversley, who sat out last season after transferring from Rice. Callero sees Eversley blossoming into a Hanson clone, and expects him to get major minutes, at times even pushing Hanson to small forward to get them both on the court. Eversley could also get time at center when Poly goes to a pressure defense, something Callero wants to do more of this season.

Poly signed another inside player, 6-7 freshman Joel Awich, in September, but he is expected to redshirt.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B-

BENCH/DEPTH: B-

FRONTCOURT: B-

INTANGIBLES: A

As much as Callero revels in Poly's ugliness, his goal this season is to make the offense more versatile and efficient. He doesn't want to abandon the walk-it-up game that gave opponents fits, but he wants to be able to run when it's advantageous or necessary.

As it is, Poly's offense can cause problems because the Mustangs will change things up, posting up anyone from the point guard to the center and allowing power forward Hanson to roam outside.

Depth will be improved this season, especially if Odister is healthy. Taylor, a classic inside banger, should make a big difference just by giving Donahue some time to rest.

"We lost a key player in Shawn Lewis, but offensively and depth-wise I'm adding," Callero said. "We're potentially adding Odister, we're definitely adding Reese Morgan, we're adding Amaurys Fermin and Chris Eversley and we're adding Will Taylor. That's kind of a five-for-one trade, and it leaves me with more depth, more ability to run and press, and we don't have to worry as much about foul trouble."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.