ST.LOUIS (KTVI) At the end of the season, there is only one champion. Only one team gets to end their season with a win. Only one team will get to cut down the nets and hoist a trophy. Of the teams assembled here in St. Louis this weekend at Scottrade Center, several came with a legitimate shot at making a deep run to the Final Four. Only two will leave here with those dreams still intact.
While they won’t have an NCAA trophy to show for it, I can’t help but think the team and school that can also claim a victory here without winning a game are the Cal-Poly Mustangs. Joe Callero’s crew qualified for its first NCAA tournament since moving to Division I 20 years ago bid by winning the Big West Conference tournament championship and then a first round play-in game in Dayton on Wednesday. They did it despite a losing regular season record brought on by injuries and a preseason schedule featuring major conference teams like Stanford, Arizona and Pittsburgh. In the world of college athletics, teams like these are sometimes known as “blood donors.” They get a healthy payday in exchange for what the big boys hope is an easy win.
Except last season, when Cal-Poly beat UCLA. At UCLA. Watch out. The blood donor may really just be getting a transfusion.
When the ball tipped Friday night against top-seed Wichita State, the Mustangs’ tank was empty, after five games in eight days. This would not be the historic game, where a 16 seed would finally topple a number one after years of close calls. 64-37… Shockers win. Sure, they’d have loved a win, but the Mustangs already felt like they’d accomplished a lot.
“Before the game, Ozzie Smith came in and told us we had already won just from a mental standpoint because we prepared and we played our butts off and got here,” said senior guard Chris Eversley.
Smith, a Cal-Poly alum, met with players in the locker room in the pregame. When Smith said he didn’t want to get in the way, Callero assured him that there were still 15-18 minutes left and plenty of time to cement a moment his players might not soon forget.
“He said we just put Cal-Poly on the map,” said senior guard Kyle Odister, who is headed for graduate school after getting his diploma this spring. “I got an autograph with him, a picture with him. Something I will remember the rest of my life. My first time being in the NCAA tournament and meeting Ozzie Smith, it’s something I really can’t beat.”
Callero now hopes he can reconnect other famous alums with their school, including Hall of Fame NFL coach John Madden and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
If the past is any indication, the school will probably see a rise in student applications thanks to the team’s national TV exposure. What’s good for the athletic department goose is good for the school’s gander. “Cal-Poly is now not just a great bunch of engineers, architects, business schools, viticulture. It is also a basketball program and you can do both, Callero said. “It is a blessing,” he said of the last few days, after all the travel, and all the exposure.
“We hope we come back soon. A little bit more rest, a little more preparation,” Callero said.
I can’t wait.