After surprising many with last season’s fourth-place finish in the Big West, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team plans on doing more of the same this year as it looks to finally break through in a conference with no definitive favorite.

“I certainly feel like our staff has the experience and our returning players have the experience to really compete for the conference championship,” Head Coach Joe Callero said. “Every coach in this conference this year … feels like they can compete for the conference championship. It’s a wide-open race and it’ll make for some exciting conference play this season.”

Despite being picked to finish seventh in this year’s preseason media poll, the Mustangs have set out to prove that will not be the case, starting off the season with an impressive 3-0 conference record and looking like the dark-horse favorite to represent the Big West come March.

Finishing above .500 last season with an 18-15 overall record and an even 8-8 conference mark, Cal Poly made a big statement early in the season with a narrow two-point road victory over then-No.11 UCLA. In what was the program’s biggest regular season win in its history, the Mustangs outscored the Bruins 30-13 in the final 10 minutes for the comeback win at the new Pauley Pavilion.

Proving the win against the Bruins was no fluke, the Mustangs have started the conference season on a tear, first defeating UC Riverside in their conference opener and then beating two-time defending Big West champions Long Beach State 79-73. With last Saturday’s victory over UC Irvine, Cal Poly is 7-6 overall and 3-0 in conference for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

With the loss of its best three players from last year’s squad, Cal Poly will rely heavily this season on junior forward Chris Eversley, who played in all of the team’s games last season and averaged 8.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Eversley has started this season leading the team in scoring (15.7) and rebounding (7.4).

With five true freshmen listed on the roster, the new core of players will play a significant role in Callero’s scheme. Forward Brian Bennett has started every game so far for the Mustangs and 6’8” forward Zach Gordon will also be an important figure for Cal Poly in the front court.

“[Gordon] really fits into the overall mode we’re looking at, complimenting the players we had before,” Callero said. “We got four young, athletic, academic, hard-nosed, tough Mustangs for the future … these four young men will be the real foundation of the interior game at the five, four and three spot.”

Cal Poly will have to overcome its defensive struggles to continue to have success in the Big West. Last season, the Mustangs were first in the conference in scoring defense (60.5 ppg), but this year they rank last in the Big West in field goal defense and have relied on their efficient shooting to win games.

A version of this article appeared on page 8 of January 9th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.