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Bottom's Up! : Champagne Days for Cal Poly, the Toast of San Luis Obispo


Computer rankings aren't something that most Division I basketball coaches boast about.

After all, if your team's not good enough for a real ranking--of the Associated Press or USA Today variety--you probably shouldn't be bragging about it.

But at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, people are proud to announce to anyone who asks that the Mustangs are now No. 222 in the nationally recognized Jeff Sagarin computer rankings.

Not great, but it sure beats last season--Cal Poly's first at Division I--when the team was No. 302.

Dead last.

Cal Poly went 1-26, losing by an average of 29 points. After earning the Worst Division I Team In America label, the Mustangs began this season at the bottom of the computer rankings again.

But Coach Jeff Schneider, who added seven players and installed an uptempo, Kentucky-style offense in his first two weeks on the job in April, has engineered this year's biggest Division I turnaround.

The Mustangs are 15-12 and owners of the American West Conference regular-season title. If they win the four-team AWC tournament, which begins today at Cal State Northridge, they'll be champions forever; the AWC is folding and Cal Poly will move to the Big West next season.

(Before you ask, the Mustangs can't go to the NCAA tournament because there is an eight-year waiting period for teams that move to Division I.)

Until losing a triple-overtime game to Southern Utah on Saturday and to San Diego on Tuesday, the Mustangs had a shot at finishing 19-10, which would have been the biggest turnaround since 1974, when the NCAA started keeping records on such things.

The Mustangs haven't been operating in anonymity either.

They've been embraced by local fans, who have crowded into 3,500-seat Mott Gym in record numbers as the season has progressed.

They've become the favorite team of NBA Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas, who recently moved into the area and became a season-ticket-holder.

And they've been adopted by a nationally syndicated sports radio show. Papa Joe Chevalier, whose Chicago-based daily talk show is broadcast on more than 150 stations, dedicates part of his show every Tuesday to talking about the Mustangs.

Said Rob Wuczynski, producer of Chevalier's show: "As do all good Americans, we always root for the underdog."

Cal Poly was so far under its mascot should have been a koala.

The Mustangs, who were a winning Division II team for most of their history, arrived in Division I with an 0-13 thud. They then beat Division III Menlo College, 62-59, before finishing the season with 13 more losses.

The symmetry of the season was about all that was neat. Cal Poly was not simply bad, the Mustangs were pathetic.

"We would get behind and then teams would just start pounding us," said Damien Levesque, who led the Mustangs with an 11.7 scoring average as a sophomore last season. "It was very demoralizing. We'd go on the road and lose by 40 or 50 points."

Making matters worse for the few Cal Poly fans who bothered to pay attention, the team's flagship radio station couldn't afford to travel. So Mustang fans heard the home team's announcers gloating when the team was on the road.

One announcer commented that "if we lose to this team, we should drop the sport of basketball." Others tried to be more cordial, saying San Luis Obispo is a great place to visit, they just wouldn't want to play basketball there.

"It just seemed like we knew we were going to lose every game," Levesque said. "We just wanted to hurry up and get the season over."

The season ended and soon thereafter so did Steve Beason's nine-year coaching stint at the school. Beason had failed to meet the modest expectations of the team that was predicted to be the worst in the country, and he was fired.

For Athletic Director John McCutcheon, the search for a new coach was as much one of him selling the job to candidates as it was the candidates selling themselves to the school.

Schneider, 36, who had been an assistant at Washington State for one season and at Tulsa for the previous five, was hired in April. He immediately fell in love with the atmosphere and scenery of San Luis Obispo, which sits a few miles inland on California's Central Coast.

A slick-looking, P.R.-conscious coach with a West Virginia twang, Schneider also realized the athletic void in San Luis Obispo, which is more than 200 miles from the nearest major professional team. He realized there would be ample public support if he could just piece together a decent team.

Having taken the job just days before the start of the NCAA signing period, Schneider had little time to get on the recruiting trail, so he got on the phone. He called players he'd seen while recruiting for Tulsa or Washington State, or those he'd been referred to by his friends.

If he could only explain to the kids where San Luis Obispo was, he figured he could get them to visit; and if he could get them to visit, he had them. Indeed, Schneider signed seven of the eight who came to the campus.

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