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Mike Lopresti | | March 19, 2014

Lopresti: Cal Poly puts on Cinderella's slipper

Cal Poly

DAYTON, Ohio -- Talk about your dream dates.

Is the NCAA tournament ready for Wichita State vs. Cal Poly?

It’ll be 34-0 against 14-19 on Friday in St. Louis. That’s not just weird. That’s weird squared. “Obtuse,” was Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero’s word for it Wednesday, after his team beat Texas Southern 81-69 to make it a match. “You’ve got a team completely undefeated, and you’ve got a team with the worst record in the tournament.

“And heck, we’ve got our warm-up game in now, too. We’ve got the sweat, we’ve got the bright lights.”

And they’ve also got the tag now, whether they want it or not. Cinderella. And not just any Cinderella. This one from central casting.

There’s the 14-19 record.

The No. 16 seeding in their first NCAA tournament.

The rare feat Wednesday when they became the first 19-loss team to win a game in the tournament in 59 years.

The rags-to-riches saga, losing nine of their past 11 regular season games, before making a U-turn in the Big West tournament.

The vagabond life, traveling more than 25,000 miles this season, 75 percent of it on a bus. In one 15-day stretch, that would impress platinum frequent-flyer card holders everywhere, they jetted cross-country to play at Pittsburgh, flew back home and bused north to meet Stanford, flew back across three time zones to play Delaware.

There’s the school location in central California, for which most of the nation has no clue. “I think our website will be a little more active in the next 48 hours, [with people] trying to figure out who is Cal Poly,” said Callero, who offered this tidbit on the school's location. “And it’s pronounced San Luis Obispo. Not San Louie.”

The willingness to stand in front of any blue-chip locomotive. To play at Arizona. At Pitt. At Oregon. At Stanford.

“Who wants to come and play Division I and try to hide?” Callero said. “I said, we’re going to play the biggest and the best.

“And that’s the way we feel about Wichita State. They’re a No. 1 seed and they’re undefeated. OK. That’s a great team. That’s a great coach. That’s a great program. But if we’re ever going to be that program that has any national recognition, you have to go play those programs. So we haven’t hid from anybody.”

Fearless and plucky, with long odds to beat. The quintessential Cinderalla.

“If that’s what you guys want to call us, we’re going to accept it,” forward Brian Bennett said. “What else is there to call it?’’

Indeed, what else?

Know who graduated from Cal Poly? John Madden. Know who played baseball there? Ozzie Smith. The alums must be charmed, ever since the Mustangs started rolling through the Big West tournament. But really, who could have dreamed this scenario?

“To be honest, I can have some pretty wild dreams,” said Chris Eversley, who had 19 points Wednesday.

But with those dreams come an understanding of reality. The Mustangs have known what they might be up against all along. They go at it with clear purpose, and humor. It was Callero who joked Tuesday that if Cal Poly won the national championship, it wouldn't even have a winning record.

But what about Wichita State?

“One thing we like to focus on is just ourselves,” Eversley said. “That’s all we can handle.”

What about having barely 48 hours to prepare? Callero thought that sounded fine.

“Sometimes you give yourself four, five, six, seven days, everybody gets in your head,” he said. “[People say], 'They’re great, you’re a 48-point underdog.’ What are you going to do? Everyone tells you you’re not going to win. We’re not going to worry about that.”

What about this stunning transformation? Has it been just a run of luck? Or maybe the fact they’re in the top 10 in the nation in fewest turnovers?

“Coach had a great line the other day,” Bennett said. “He said he didn’t want luck, he wanted better execution.

“We all have confidence, we’re all excited, we’re all pumped for the challenge.”

What about that long, painful history for No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament -- 0-116 against No. 1 seeds?

“I was so weird that I was cheering for the last five years that a 16 never upsets a 1,” Callero said. “Because I said, well, that would be great if we could ever get a bid, we’d probably be a 16 seed, and then we’d have a chance to make real history there.”

The chance has come. Inexplicably. Unexpectedly. In a manner they never could have guessed.

On Wednesday night, this Cinderella story was headed for the airport and a late-night flight to St. Louis.

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