Despite being picked to finish fifth in the conference in preseason polls, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team shot out to the best preseason record in the Big West. Things changed a bit for their conference opener, when they had a 48-66 smackdown handed to them by conference juggernaut UC Riverside. However, the Mustangs bounced back to trounce Long Beach State and currently sit their predicted fifth in the league. Still, their preseason prowess can’t be ignored, and the Cal Poly squad expects to do big things this season.

“I think that we have been playing well, but there are some areas that are still weaknesses in my opinion,” Head Coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We have good depth, very good shooting inside and out, and a balanced team. There are definitely signs of a championship contending team.”

The Mustangs are a prototypical speed-based team; they try to push the ball hard in transition and work a pressure defense regularly. Thanks to their speed, the Mustangs average a league-leading 68.8 points per game. Three of the Cal Poly women average double-digit scoring outputs, led by sophomore forward Kristina Santiago at 14.7 points per game.

“We’re definitely a fast paced team, and we like to run the transitional offense,” Santiago said. “Fast breaking is always our first option, but unlike past years, we also have the ability to slow things down and run plays. Our ability to either play fast or slow down with more control is a definite advantage for us.”

In addition to being the highest-scoring team in the league, the Mustangs average a stellar 17.8 assists a night – almost four more than the next closest conference competitor.

“I think sharing the ball is one of the key things [to our success], and our pressure defense – when it’s good – is a huge thing for our team,” Santiago said. “Putting the pressure on lets us get a lot of steals and big blocks down low, and that is a huge boost for our team.”

Along with Santiago in double-digit scoring, seniors forward Megan Harrison and guard Lisa McBride average 12.7 and 10.8 points apiece, respectively. The three have been key to the success of the Cal Poly offense, for they all can work inside and out very successfully. This court depth has not only been tough for opposing defenses to handle, but also has spread the court for the Mustangs’ spot shooters.

“We have people that come off the bench as just three-point shooters or just inside players, but me, Megan [Harrison] and Lisa [McBride] are all around players – we can go inside and out,” Santiago said. “I definitely think that we have a team that can score all the way through the lineup, but three of us are scoring in double digits. I’d say that the big difference is that we are more versatile on the court, and get more touches and more shots because of it.”

The Mustangs’ defense is their weakest point. While it has been successful, it has not been nearly as consistent night to night as their high-powered offense has. The team generally runs a man defense to compliment their press, but this has been susceptible to inside-out play. Cal Poly needs a zone to help balance out opponents’ offenses, and with a zone being a focus of their practices, they should have one to implement at some point during the Big West season.

“Defensively we’re not as quick as we have been in the past,” Mimnaugh said. “We have more size, so it’s about making adjustments and filling the holes. Some of that is positional work. We’re trying to move our feet and keep our hands out. I think it an area that we can still shore up a little bit. With the size we have on the court we should be getting 30 to 40 percent of the offensive rebounds, and we are not there yet. I haven’t been pleased with our rebounding out of the zone, so that’s why we haven’t employed it in game. But it’s something that I think we are getting better at, and it would be nice to be able to use.”

Overall, the Cal Poly squad is very confident about their abilities. Their losses so far have come against tough teams, and the Mustangs feel like if they are playing well they can hang with anyone, including the whole Big West. The key for Cal Poly will just be their ability to adjust to what team they are playing that night.

“We can’t let the mismatches in conference harm us,” Mimnaugh said. “We’ve played some teams that are athletic, but we haven’t really faced anyone with the height of Riverside. We haven’t really played any teams with the quickness of Santa Barbara. The conference is tough this year. Our ability to adjust on the fly and learn from opponents, learn their strengths and tendencies and how to negate and exploit those tendencies, will be the key to our success. If we learn quickly, we will be in a good position to succeed. If it takes us a half or more, we might not have that option.”

With a lot of firepower at their disposal, the Mustangs plan on making big moves in this conference season. As long as they stick to their game plan and continue improving, they feel that they have a shot at taking it all.

“Our team believes that we’re going to win the Big West championship, and that’s our ultimate goal,” Harrison said. “But anything can happen, and in the Big West we face a lot of good teams, so we are going to have to work hard all season to succeed in that goal.”