While it is true that the Big West title may very well be up for grabs to any team in the conference this year, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team under Head Coach Kevin Bromley has a shot at being one of the top contenders.

Don’t be deceived by Cal Poly’s (6-8 overall, 1-3 in the Big West) early season record. Finishing even at 7-7 in the Big West last year, the 2006-2007 Mustangs do have what it takes to challenge every team in their league this year.

“We have the talent on our team this year, it’s now about getting the chemistry,” senior forward Derek Stockalper said. “If we play well together, we have a shot at winning any game. At this point, it’s pretty wide open: Pacific lost three main guys, Long Beach is going to be tough, Fullerton is going to be tough and those are the top two teams in the conference this year.”

In addition to finishing even in the conference last season, Cal Poly tore its way through the Big West Tournament all the way to the semi-finals, to complete the year with a 10-19 overall record.

Promise for finding that late-season groove this year lies in the returners Bromley will once again rely heavily on in clutch situations. Leading all players last year, Stockalper, who earned an All-Big West First Team nomination and will look to do so again in 2007, averaged 12.9 points per game and led the team defensively with 6.7 rebounds per game – a littler over four rebounds per game more than the second-best defensive threat on the squad.

“Coming off a great junior year, Derek is a great all-around player with tremendous instincts,” Bromley said. “He is so valuable to us: he can play the 2, 3 and 4 positions. … He is a great rebounder who doesn’t get enough credit in that area.”

Complimenting Stockalper nicely as the second-best leader last year, junior guard Dawin Whiten returns as the lone All-Big West Second Team selection. Last year, he finished just below Stockalper in the standings averaging 11.6 points per game and 2.6 rebounds. Against conference opponents, in the 2004-2005 season, Whiten was Cal Poly’s top scorer and looks to continue his offensive tear in the rest of this season.

In addition to Stockalper’s First Team and Whiten’s Second Team nods, both sophomore point guards Trae Clark and Chaz Thomas were honored for their roles in the team last year as the Big West Freshman of the Year and a member of the All-Big West Freshman Team, respectively.

Those players are following their honors up, as Cal Poly’s natural leaders. In just 14 games, Stockalper leads the Mustangs with 176 points and is averaging 12.6 per game. He also leads the team in rebounds with 90, averaging 6.4 per game. Stockalper ranks eighth in total points in the Big West and is second only to Pacific’s sophomore center Anthony Brown in rebounds.

Whiten is again on pace to finish up in the number two slot, just nine points behind Stockalper, averaging 11.9 per game. And of this year’s sophomores, Clark and Thomas combined are pitching in 128 points on this young season.

Heading into Big West conference play, the Mustangs finished up the preseason with a 5-5 record, with a three-game win streak in late November. In that stretch, Cal Poly defeated the likes of Cal State Stanislaus (7-6), St. Mary’s (8-9) and Occidental (7-3) and finished up preseason wins with an 82-60 beating of Northern Arizona (8-7).

“It’s a great non-conference schedule and last year we were too young and we didn’t know how to win,” Bromley said. “We had a great fresh recruiting class and we played well… but we didn’t know how to finish people off because we were too young. This year they’re the young fresh guards have a lot more savvy, they had a great summer and getting stronger, playing in pram leagues, they’re not just trying to survive like most fresh do, they really want to win.”

In conference play, Cal Poly’s 1-3 record is slightly misleading. On Dec. 28, the Mustangs suffered a narrow 99-91 loss to Fullerton in the conference opener. That game, however, served as a marker for the squad as it scored the most amount of points in a single game thus far. Stockalper and Whiten again led the squad on the night with 22 and 19 points each, respectively.

The next night against Riverside, Cal Poly notched its first conference win with complete production from the entire team. The Mustangs need to have more nights like this in order to notch another conference win, and in the future will benefit from total production instead of just relying on one top scorer.

Since then, the team has struggled to find a winning groove, losing to both Irvine and Long Beach by seven points or less. In those two games, it seems the defense figured Stockalper out and contained him to 15 points or less. And when Stockalper doesn’t produce, the rest of the team doesn’t step up enough to compensate for his scoring deficit.

However, the season is still young and there is much more to prove. Only four wins separate first-place Long Beach from last-place Riverside, with a lot of interesting records in between. If Cal Poly’s entire roster can peak with or without its leading scorer, the Mustangs may have a decent shot at going deep into the Big West Tournament in 2007.

“I think the conf is as strong as it’s ever been and I think it’ll be a great year in the Big West,” Bromley said.