Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Long Beach State aims to parlay tough schedule into at-large bid

Few Big West coaches have the audacity to suggest their teams can contend for an at-large NCAA tournament berth since the league has gone six years without winning a first-round game or producing multiple March Madness entrants.

Consider Long Beach State's Dan Monson the exception to that rule.

Hoping to give his senior-laden team an opportunity to spring some marquee upsets and push its way into at-large contention next season, Monson has assembled a non-league schedule that is demanding even by his standards. Among the high-profile opponents the 49ers will face before Christmas are Pittsburgh, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and Xavier, all of whom are fixtures in most preseason Top 25 polls.

There may not be a team in the nation that could emerge from that gauntlet of road games unscathed, but Monson is optimistic his team can topple a giant or two. Point guard Casper Ware and wing Larry Anderson are among the four starters the 49ers return from a team that won the Big West by four games a year ago yet had to settle for an NIT berth after falling to UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament title game.

"We haven't mentioned at-large bids in years past because we just haven't felt it was realistic, but this year we're going to challenge them with that," Monson said. "I don't think there's any way we can get around the fact that if we don't make the NCAA tournament, it's going to be a very disappointing year for us. And this preseason schedule gives them a chance to control their own destiny right off the bat."

Playing the role of giant killer should be nothing new for Long Beach State's upperclassmen because Monson has employed the same scheduling philosophy since he took over the program four years ago.

The 2009-10 schedule included trips to Texas, Kentucky, Duke and Notre Dame and neutral-court matchups with UCLA, West Virginia and Clemson. Then last season, Long Beach State traveled to North Carolina, Washington and Utah State and played Saint Mary's, Clemson and Iowa on a neutral floor.

Monson's eagerness to play as many elite programs as possible is a product of the success he had building Gonzaga into an unlikely national power by utilizing the same philosophy. Not only has Monson found that recruits relish the chance to annually compete against college basketball's perennial powers, he also believes Long Beach State's best chance to elevate itself in the sport is by pulling upsets big enough to generate headlines.

"When you're trying to put your place on the map, you've got to play high-profile schools," Monson said. "It's something I did in the past and I was comfortable with, so when I came here I wanted to do the same thing. If we were going to get this program to a national level and increase its profile, we had to do that with marquee games and we're not going to get those games unless we play in a tournament or go to their place."

All Long Beach State has to show for that strategy so far are victories over UCLA in 2009 and Iowa last season, but Monson vehemently disagrees with critics who suggest he has over-scheduled.

When preseason Big West favorite Long Beach State began the 2009-10 conference season with losses in four of its first five games, many wondered if enduring the nation's toughest pre-January 1 schedule might have worn the 49ers down. Monson admits the schedule backfired, but he argues it's not for the reason most believe.

"As funny as it sounds, I really think we went into league overconfident," Monson said. "I think the schedule hurt us because they really thought it was going to be easy once they got to league. They were tied with Kentucky with 12 minutes to go, they had a chance to beat Notre Dame, they had beaten UCLA and they played right down to the end against Clemson. Everyone was telling them how great they were doing, but they weren't ready to understand that anytime you hit league, it's a whole different game."

It will take two or more shock-the-world upsets and then a near-spotless league campaign to propel Long Beach State into at-large contention next season, but Monson doesn't view that goal as unrealistic.

Ware returns for his senior season after averaging 17.2 points and 4.4 assists as a junior and earning the MVP of the Drew League in Los Angeles this summer. Complementing him are a pair of fellow seniors: the high-scoring 6-foot-5 Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and shot 52 percent from the field last season and 6-foot-8 T.J. Robinson, who averaged 13.8 points and 10.1 rebounds.

That's enough talent to make Long Beach State an early Big West favorite despite plenty of talented transfers and returners at both UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Fullerton. It's also enough experience for Monson to be confident his team won't be intimidated playing at the Dean Dome or Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

"What we don't have in the talent against a team like Kansas, we do have in experience," Monson said. "We do have that advantage early in the season against a team you know is going to be there in the end because they're going to be a little inexperienced in November. For us to get recognition and get in the at-large conversation, we've got to take advantage of that because that's the strength we have."


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