John McGrath

McGrath: Callero using Gonzaga as exposure for Cal Poly

A few hours before holding practice in preparation for a game his basketball team has next to no chance of winning, Joe Callero considered the view.

“I’m in my room at the W Hotel overlooking the water and the holiday decorations in downtown Seattle,” Callero said Friday afternoon. “There could be worse occupations, right?”

Callero’s occupation figures to find the Cal Poly coach slightly more stressed Saturday night at KeyArena, where the Mustangs will challenge No. 8 Gonzaga in the 12th annual Battle in Seattle.

Callero offered a thumbnail scouting report on the Zags — “they’re not only tall up front but thick, with two 7-footers who’ll play in the NBA, and the senior guards are as fast, quick and clever as anybody in the nation” — then shared an imaginative game plan.

“We’re praying to God,” he said, “that everybody on their team comes down with the flu.”

As it’s unlikely his players will be the beneficiaries of divine intervention with a nefarious twist, Callero is approaching Gonzaga in the spirit of a realist who’s also an idealist.

“I told our guys to think of this game as if it were the first round of the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Look at it as the Seattle regional. We’re a 15th seed, and they’re a second seed.”

Cal Poly is familiar with the drill, thanks to an improbable late-season run last March. The Mustangs were 10-19 before they swept through the Big West Tournament and beat Texas Southern in the first-round NCAA game. Top-seeded and undefeated Wichita State proved to be as problematic as anticipated in the second round — the Shockers coasted to a 64-37 victory — but the national exposure Cal Poly enjoyed from its first NCAA tournament appearance was substantial.

For one, it gave the Mustangs enough of a name to qualify for the KeyArena marquee.

“Taking on quality teams, anywhere and everywhere, is what our program is about,” said Callero. “If your goal is recognition among the best, you need to compete against the best. Gonzaga in Seattle? Perfect. This is where we need to be right now.”

If Callero sounds as though the Battle of Seattle thrills him, it’s because it thrills him. A 52-year old native of Enumclaw and a Central Washington graduate, Callero’s head-coaching career is rich with local connections: two stints at Highline Community College, three seasons at Sumner High, two seasons at UPS, seven seasons at Seattle University.

In 2009, Callero was hired for what’s looking like his ultimate-destination job at Cal Poly, a three-syllable variation for what’s officially known as the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

The school is proud of its heritage of producing future engineers and architects, and its basketball coach is proud of his team’s consistent ability to earn diplomas. Between the quality of a Cal Poly education and the lure of some intangibles — lovely afternoons that conclude with oceanfront sunsets fit for a postcard — Callero can throw a pitch recruits find hard to resist.

A reasonable ambition for Callero would be turning Cal Poly into the Gonzaga of the California Coast — a mid-major powerhouse with a lineup representing several different time zones — but for now, in lieu of conquering the world, he’s drawing talent from his Pacific Northwest roots.

Cal Poly’s roster includes Zach Gordon, a 6-foot-8 junior forward from Archbishop Murphy in Lynnwood. Luke Meikle, a 6-8 sophomore forward from Bellarmine Prep, is sitting out the season after his transfer from Gonzaga. Hank Hollingsworth, a 6-10 center from Chelan High, announced his commitment to Cal Poly last week.

“This area is important to us,” said Callero. “It’s a big reason we wanted a Gonzaga game at Seattle on our schedule.”

There’s a flip side to the proposition, to be sure. The Mustangs are a mere 5-4 — their fifth win was accomplished by overcoming a 14-point deficit against Northeastern — and nobody will be surprised if Gonzaga coach Mark Few empties the bench midway through the second half.

Callero’s hope is to keep things suspenseful, and force Gonzaga out of a comfort zone associated with 30-point cushions at halftime.

“It’s like golf,” he said. “If you’ve got a seven-stroke lead on the final hole at The Masters, there’s no pressure in a putt to make par. But if there’s somebody breathing down your neck? The putt for par is way different.

“If you’re able to stay close, those second-half shots that used to look so easy for the other team suddenly aren’t so easy.”

Staying close until the opponents sense they are hoisting two-pound medicine balls is a formula hundreds of double-digit underdogs have used throughout college basketball history.

It works especially well against opponents ailing with the flu.

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