The first thing Kyle Odister did upon landing in Dayton, Ohio, on Monday afternoon on a team charter that felt more like Cloud 9, was call his uncle.
Michael Buchanan, a barber in town, hustled over to the Cal Poly team hotel to offer quick makeovers, bearing shears and stories.
“Got to look good for the team and TV now,” said Odister, a senior guard at Cal Poly and former Rio Americano High School standout. “My uncle’s working on everyone.”
The madness in March always includes overwhelming underdogs, eager to show they belong – and Odister leads the biggest one. The Mustangs were on no one’s national radar last week. They sat at 10-19 after closing the Big West Conference regular season with a lethargic 71-55 home loss to UC Santa Barbara, the team’s third consecutive loss and 10th in its final 13 games. The effort against UCSB was so putrid, Odister said, Cal Poly players were running into each other.
Afterward, the team huddled and decided to do something about it. As the Big West Conference tournament’s seventh seed, the Mustangs toppled the top two seeds in UC Irvine and Santa Barbara to reach Saturday’s title game. Poly then beat Cal State Northridge and first-year coach Reggie Theus 61-59 – Odister’s free throw accounted for the final point – at the Honda Center in Anaheim to become the lowest Big West seed to squeak into the NCAA Tournament.
Cal Poly is one of eight teams that will compete in First Four games on Tuesday and Wednesday to qualifty for the field of 64. The Mustangs will play Texas Southern on Wednesday in an attempt to earn a game against Midwest Region No. 1 seed and undefeated Wichita State on Friday in St. Louis.
“It’s definitely surreal to be here, but we have nothing to lose now,” said Odister, a sociology major who averages 9.3 points. “I know people are excited. I had 120 texts on my phone, and my Twitter and Facebook blew up, too. I think we learned that if we can come together, get on the same page, we can compete.”
Odister said he’s also pleased to be healthy. He missed his sophomore season because of a left ankle injury, and he sat parts of this season with a right foot fracture. The Mustangs missed Odister’s leadership, ballhandling and three-point shooting.
“It’s great to be back,” Odister said. “I’m not as quick as I was before, but I’m smarter. I evaluate things more.”
While he’s excited to be in the spotlight with his teammates, Odister said, “No one saw this coming.”
“It’s everyone’s dream to get to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “We’re not used to this. We planned our flight (Sunday) night, took a charter at 6 (Monday) morning. Everyone has the books. It’s finals week, and we don’t know how to handle all this. But we’ll figure it out.”
Others to the Dance – San Diego State, led by guard Xavier Thames (Pleasant Grove High School), is the No. 4 seed in the West and opens against New Mexico State on Thursday in Spokane, Wash. Thames, a senior, was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. His freshman teammates include former Bee Players of the Year from Sheldon Dakarai Allen and D’Erryl Williams.
Meet them in St. Louie – Robbie Lemons (Sacramento Country Day) is a reserve guard at Stanford, the No. 10 seed in the East that plays New Mexico on Friday in St. Louis. At Country Day, Lemons was second in the nation in scoring at 36.4 points in the 2009-10 season. He was a walk-on at Stanford and earned a scholarship last year. Lemons averages 13 minutes a game.
Hayes repeat – Matt Hayes is on a roll. A year after leading Pleasant Grove to the CIF State Division I championship, Hayes helped propel Santa Rosa to its first California Community College state title. Hayes, Santa Rosa’s leading scorer at 16.2 points per game, had 11in the Bear Cubs’ 73-67 victory over San Bernardino Valley in Norwalk.
He scored nine of his 25 points in overtime in a NorCal opening win over Merritt, then had 22 points in a 67-60victory over Ohlone. In the state semifinals, Hayes scored 20 points in a 49-47 win over Chaffey.
Santa Rosa started the season 3-6 and finished 24-8.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.