College Basketball Nation: Eugene Phelps

They still shake their heads sometimes when Dan Monson’s name is mentioned.

Minnesota basketball fans tend to dwell on Monson’s struggles throughout his seven-plus years with the program whenever they reflect on his tenure. Monson, Long Beach State’s head coach, left a blossoming Gonzaga squad to take over the Gophers in 1999. He followed Clem Haskins, whose tumultuous term ended with an academic scandal that rocked the program.

Seven games into the 2006-07 season -- the Gophers finished 9-22 that campaign -- Monson resigned. In the end, greener pastures in the Big Ten became a field of dead grass for Monson.

Monson said he’s thankful that Long Beach State gave him a chance even though he “was on the street.”

You have to know Monson’s history to appreciate his program’s 86-76 upset at No. 9 Pitt on Wednesday. The victory shattered history for the Panthers, who hadn’t lost a nonconference home game in 58 previous outings. For Monson, it highlighted the journey that started with a six-win season in 2007-08, which followed an ugly departure from Minnesota.

“Certainly, that’s been a great blessing," Monson said Wednesday night. "Things were tough at Minnesota, and I just feel really lucky that I found a place that wanted me, that fit my same vision and my same goals that Long Beach State has. That part is very gratifying for me.”

Long Beach State’s victory continued a string of early upsets by smaller schools. Akron, Kent State, Cleveland State and Middle Tennessee recorded wins over BCS schools within the past week.

Monson’s Long Beach State team possesses one of the key components that helped Virginia Commonwealth and Butler reach the Final Four last season: experience.

Veterans Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Eugene Phelps anchor the program. The four seniors scored a combined 59 points Wednesday. They anchored an LBSU attack that stunned Pitt with its offensive aggression and active defense. They cut off passing lanes and forced Pitt to take poor shots.

On offense, they outran the Panthers and hit 59 percent of their field goal attempts.

They achieved the victory in a building that’s been the site of just one other nonconference loss for Pitt. It was Long Beach State’s first win over a top-10 opponent since 1993.

“I’m proud of our guys, and certainly it’s a great win for our program and our university,” Monson said.

And it’s redemptive for Monson.

The 49ers have at-large potential. They’ve missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, losing back-to-back conference tournament title games to UC Santa Barbara.

With a nonconference schedule that features matchups against North Carolina, Kansas, Xavier and Louisville, the 49ers will have additional chances to enhance their at-large profile.

But Monson didn’t dwell on his team’s pending matchups against some of college basketball’s giants. He’s too worried about Saturday’s matchup against San Diego State.

“We’ve already talked about it,” Monson said. “They’re going to enjoy it for a day. The word ‘Pittsburgh’ is not in our vocabulary Friday morning when we get ready for San Diego State.”

That game-by-game approach makes sense for Monson and Long Beach State. Puts things in perspective.

And really, who cares about the past?

Long Beach State has new team bracelets

November, 10, 2011
Long Beach State is a team that is clearly on the rise, with four starters returning as seniors coming off a season in which the 49ers won the Big West regular-season title. Think there's some pressure on coach Dan Monson to lead this team to the NCAA tournament? On the 49ers' website, here's the opening line to the season preview: "The mission is simple for the 2011-12 Long Beach State 49ers. Nothing less than a trip to the NCAA tournament is acceptable."

That because as Monson enters his fifth season at Long Beach State, he's still in search of his first NCAA tournament bid with the 49ers. They've come close in the past two seasons, falling to UC Santa Barbara twice in the Big West tournament championship game. Now they just have to get over the hump, and as a sign of their commitment to that goal, they all wear team wristbands, according to the Gazette Newspapers.
The message is clear: FINISH. Those six letters are embedded into bracelets that every player on the team will wear on the court this year.

"The FINISH band means a lot, especially to us seniors," [guard Casper] Ware said after a recent morning practice. "We've been to the places and never finished before, so it's just a reminder that we need to finish this off."

It may as well be tattooed onto their foreheads.

"It sunk in last year when we lost in the championship in the Big West tournament," says Ware. "I thought to myself, ‘I’ve only got one more chance to get this done.'"

For the 49ers last season, it was a bitter end losing to UC Santa Barbara. They had worn wristbands that read "NOW" in hopes that it was their time to go dancing, but it wasn't to be.

Now for those senior starters -- Ware, Eugene Phelps, T.J. Robinson and Larry Anderson -- it's one last chance to dance. Whether or not they can do so to finish out their careers will be something to watch.

Long Beach State takes on all comers

July, 1, 2011
At Pittsburgh. At San Diego State. At Montana.

At Louisville. At Kansas. At North Carolina.

Then a business trip to the Diamond Head Classic, where Clemson, Kansas State and Xavier are among the teams in the field.

That's what the Long Beach State schedule looks like on the road before its Big West Conference season begins, and it's really no surprise. Coach Dan Monson, in his time with the 49ers, has consistently sought to challenge his team to better prepare it for the league.

The strategy hasn't always completely worked, as UC Santa Barbara has captured the NCAA tournament bid the past two seasons. But with four senior Long Beach State starters returning and expectations high, there is the sense that this team has what it takes to handle life on the road in some of the toughest places to play in the country.

"We are extremely excited to be playing one of the most challenging preseason schedules in the nation, if not once again the toughest in the country," Monson said in a statement. "We are hopeful that this ambitious scheduling will not only prepare us for the Big West season, but will enable us to understand the improvements that we need to challenge the elite teams in the country and help us elevate our game to a new level. Our goal this year is to not just play a rigorous schedule, but to have success against these teams."

The 49ers return Big West player of the year Casper Ware on a roster accustomed to facing challenges on the road. Last season, they lost at Washington, at Utah State and at North Carolina. The previous season, they beat UCLA on a neutral site while falling at Notre Dame, at Texas, at Kentucky and at Duke.

The seniors -- Ware, T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Eugene Phelps -- have been put to the test before, and like Monson said, now is the time to experience success. Can the 49ers pull a couple upsets? They'll have plenty of opportunities to do so.