It’s still early, but Cal Poly might be the best story of the NCAA Tournament.
The Mustangs (14-19) had lost nine of 11 games entering their conference tournament but won three straight games – including a 61-59 win over Cal State Northridge in the Big West championship – to receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Playing in the First Four on Wednesday, Cal Poly knocked off Texas Southern, 81-69, in Dayton.
That means a team that started the season 10-19 just won an NCAA Tournament game.
“Our team was really a group of kids that were working and working (all year long),” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said on Ferrall on the Bench. “We played a really tough (schedule). Seriously, we played five teams that are in the Big Dance.”
Indeed, Cal Poly played Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, Pittsburgh and Delaware.
The Mustangs actually started 3-0 in conference play but suffered a series of injuries. Callero said he had to “super glue” the team together for about six weeks.
“We knew if we could get some guys healthy, (we would have a chance),” Collero said.
“It’s a bunch of kids that know each other, like each other, work their butts off together and made a great run. And now we get the ultimate challenge (of playing) a 34-0 (team).”
Cal Poly plays No. 1 Wichita State on Friday in St. Louis.
The Mustangs built an early double-digit lead against Texas Southern and led 44-32 at halftime before playing to a 37-37 standstill after the break. Cal Poly’s balanced attack – Chris Eversley (19 points), Dave Nwaba (17) and Brian Bennett (10) all reached double figures – offset Texas Southern’s Aaric Murray, who scored a whopping 38 points.
Murray’s 38 points were the most scored by a Southwestern Athletic Conference player in NCAA Tournament history and the most for a player in a play-in or First Four game since the tourney expanded to 65 teams in 2001.
Cal Poly, meanwhile, is just the second team to ever win an NCAA Tournament game with 19+ losses. The first team to do that? Bradley, in 1955.
“Confidence is a great thing,” said Collero, whose team is trending in the right direction.
Cal Poly lost to UC Santa Barbara by 16 points on Senior Night on March 8. The Mustangs then beat UC Santa Barbara six days later in the first round of the Big West Tournament – by 31 points, no less.
“We just kind of rolled with the punches and said momentum is a big thing,” Collero said.
With its win over Texas Southern, Cal Poly becomes the only undefeated program in NCAA Tournament history – for now, anyway. The Mustangs have a pretty quick turnaround before facing Wichita State, but that’s fine with Collero.
“The best thing that we got going on for us right now is the fact that we only have 48 hours to get ready for the next game,” he said. “I would hate to have to wait five or seven days and lose our mojo because right now the best thing we got going is momentum – and you need that against a really, really good Wichita State team.”