College Basketball Nation: Casper Ware
2. Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney can't be too disappointed. He was a long shot to be selected. He has had one of the most bizarre and most discussed careers I have seen in covering the sport for 22 years. Hopefully he will find his way. The Bulldogs' Dee Bost, who didn't get picked either, once famously declared for the draft then returned to school in 2011 after claiming he didn't know the rules.
3. The Big East fully expects Boise State to be a football member and is doing all it can to help the Broncos get the rest of their sports into the Big West, even making a financial commitment. San Diego State spent Thursday lobbying other Big West members to help get the Broncos into the league. Boise State has until Saturday to withdraw from the Mountain West for 2013 or face further penalty. The Big West has to simply make a decision. The basketball conference will be much improved by adding Boise State with SDSU and Hawaii -- three programs that care deeply about their sports.
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Previewing the Round of 32 games at the Rose Garden:
No. 4 seed Indiana (26-8) vs. No. 12 VCU (29-6), 7:10 p.m. ET
VCU coach Shaka Smart enjoys inspiring, insightful quotes, and he's leaning on one that is relevant to his 2011-12 team as it prepares to face Indiana in the South Region with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line: "Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing."
It's from Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," but it could just as easily be from a book on the NCAA tournament, one written as a self-help tome for a select group of so-called mid-majors: "Cinderella: The Year After (and After and After)."
You might have heard this: Smart and the Rams burst onto the scene last year with a surprising Final Four run. Yes, they agree, it was really neat. Yes, they'll tell you, the banners hanging in their home gym still give them goose bumps. But things won are done and losing's soul lies in living in the past.
Said Smart, "We've used that [quote] at times because everyone wants to talk about last year's Final Four run, but that's done, that's over. It's all about now."
The Rams' showdown with Indiana is interesting for a variety of reasons. For one, the Hoosiers are a super-elite program that's been in the dumps of late but is eager to climb back to the top of hoops' Mt. Olympus. VCU is a newbie riding high under Smart's pitch-perfect leadership.
VCU, which has won 18 of 19, is all about its full-court-pressing "Havoc" defense. Indiana is a high-scoring team that isn't afraid to run. The Hoosiers also are great from behind the 3-point line, hitting on 43.6 percent of their attempts, which ranks second in the nation. In their first game here against New Mexico State, they put on an offensive exhibition, hitting 59 percent of their shots, including 7 of 13 from 3-point range. They scored inside and outside, they ran the break, found open looks in the halfcourt and seven players contributed to 15 total assists.
The question on Saturday is whether they can break the Rams' press and again get good looks at the basket. The key, Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said, is to not let the Rams dictate where the ball goes.
"You've got to do a great job of catching the ball where you want to catch it," he said. "If you catch it where they want you to catch it, it's going to be a problem."
VCU has good size, and 7-footer D.J. Haley did an outstanding job Thursday of containing Wichita State big man and leading scorer Garrett Stutz. But Indiana center Cody Zeller offers a different challenge: He's 6-11 and moves like a 3.
"He's as good as any big kid that we've played in the three years I've been at VCU," Smart said of the freshman. "You talk about him running the floor. We definitely can't give him easy baskets in transition. I would guess that one of the things that they'll try to do is get the ball in quickly after makes or, certainly on misses, get the ball outlet quickly and then look for Zeller running to the rim. If you can get the ball in extremely quickly before the press is set up, then that's one way to beat pressure defensive teams."
Against Wichita State, VCU showed it could score out of a half-court offense, which it has struggled to do this season, and make big shots when the screws tighten. And, while Indiana is the pedigreed program, it's the Rams who have been here before.
Of course, four starters are gone from the 2011 VCU team, and Indiana couldn't have looked more poised while it pounded the Aggies. The past, recent and dusty, probably won't dictate much Saturday.
Said VCU senior forward Bradford Burgess when asked to compare last year's team to this year's team, "Really, the only similarity is the name on the jersey."
No. 4 Louisville (27-9) vs. No. 5 New Mexico (28-6), 9:40 p.m. ET
Louisville has inside information on New Mexico. Cardinals assistant coach Wyking Jones was an assistant the previous two seasons for the Lobos. He was particularly close to the Lobos' two best players, forward Drew Gordon and guard Kendall Williams.
It might not matter a whit. It could, in fact, become more of a distraction, something New Mexico coach Steve Alford can anticipate and counter. But the Louisville players and coach Rick Pitino didn't hide the fact they see it as an advantage against the Lobos for Saturday's matchup.
"Well, he can't hurt, obviously, because he recruited some of their players, knows the guys, knows their personalities, when they could get down or when they could be up," Pitino said. "So we're going to have a good feel for them in abbreviated [way]. He gives us things, a feel that we wouldn't normally get."
Said guard Russ Smith, "It definitely helps because he knows their personnel very well. As far as the seniors and juniors on the team, he knows some of the calls that might be made. So Coach Jones definitely is helping us a lot, especially in practice and in film the past day."
The key in this one, however, is shooting. I know: Genius. But this game pits two of the nation's top-five field goal percentage defenses, with both hovering around 38 percent. Both defenses won the battle in their second-round victories. The Cardinals shut down a high-scoring Davidson attack, miring a team that likes to run in a half-court game, while Williams played a major role in shutting down Long Beach State point guard Casper Ware, the Big West Player of the Year, who shot 5 of 19 from the field and was 2-of-9 from 3-point range.
Williams seems most likely to take on surging Louisville point guard Peyton Siva. While Siva isn't the Cardinals' leading scorer, he won Most Outstanding Player as he and his teammates took a surprising roll through the Big East tournament. He scored 17 points -- one below his season's high -- in the win over Davidson, and has averaged 14.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.6 steals in five postseason games.
Not surprisingly, the uptick in Siva's play has coincided with the uptick in the Cardinals' fortunes. Pitino credited the change to Siva's late-season ability to vary the speed of his play, which came out of a meeting between the two.
Said Pitino, recalling the meeting, "'Peyton, I'm going to tell you why you're struggling, because you just play at one pace, extremely fast. And because of that, you have a lot of turnovers, because you don't know how to probe and change your pace and create things because you play at one speed.'
"And we showed him a tape of Steve Nash and how Steve always probes and gets in the lane and keeps his dribble and comes back and does something else. And that more than anything else really changed his mindset of learning how to change speeds. And he's been brilliant in the Big East tournament. Brilliant yesterday with doing that. And for someone to make that abrupt change like that and really just visualize himself doing that speaks about his basketball IQ in a big way."
So, is the Siva-Williams matchup going to happen? We'll, er, Siva. Alford wouldn't commit.
"Kendall Williams always gets the top assignment," he said. "If he's the top assignment, Kendall will get that assignment."
While there are some similarities between the teams, there also are plenty of differences. For one, New Mexico doesn't see a lot of full-court press in the Mountain West Conference. And Louisville will be much happier running and creating a frantic pace.
The biggest is this: New Mexico has never reached the Sweet 16. Louisville has been there 17 times, fifth-most in the nation.
But neither history nor Wyking Jones is likely to be the difference in this one. It's probably going to be about getting good looks against defenses that don't give many of them. And converting those looks.
PORTLAND -- The NCAA tournament is a showcase for college basketball stars to shine. But it's also often about them faltering at the worst moments. And lesser-known members of a team's constellation suddenly twinkling in the sport's firmament.
In the entertaining bit of theater that was New Mexico's impressive 75-68 win over a game and perhaps underseeded Long Beach State squad, the Lobos prevailed for a variety of reasons. But chief among them was their star, center Drew Gordon, playing smart and within himself and his No. 2, guard Kendall Williams, showing himself not unwilling to step to the fore.
Meanwhile, the 49ers will be wondering "what if" after point guard Casper Ware, the Big West Player of the Year, conference tournament MVP and Wooden Award nominee, flopped on a big stage. Ware scored 17 points to lead his team, but he also hit only 5 of 19 shots from the field, including 2 of 9 from 3-point range.
"We're here because of Casper Ware," Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. "So when we leave here, it's going to be because of him. He's carried us."
Gordon posted his 16th double-double of the season, scoring a team-high 18 points and grabbing a team-high 13 rebounds. But it was Williams, the Lobos' second-leading scorer, who made the biggest plays in the second half, when he scored 14 of his 16 points. He also was the Lobo who seemed to most trouble Ware, always seeming to make himself an inconvenience between Ware and the basket.
The game turned just as the 49ers looked to be surging. New Mexico had built an 8-point lead in the second half, but a dunk from James Ennis -- wham! -- had the 49ers suddenly leading 61-59 with five minutes remaining. Their fans started to smell their first tournament win since 1973.
But, after a timeout, Williams drilled a 3-pointer that gave New Mexico a lead it would never relinquish. He hit two of his three treys in the second half, but this one was by far his biggest of the season. Or was it?
"I could probably better answer that after Saturday, because hopefully I can hit some big ones on Saturday," Williams said. "It was nice. It was nice. Good shot."
That slightly coy response refers to New Mexico's date Saturday with Louisville.
After Williams hit his shot, Ware missed the front end of a one-and-one, Gordon made a layup, Ware fouled Williams, and Williams hit a pair of free throws. So in under 1:30, a 2-point Lobos deficit became a 5-point Lobos lead. The 49ers cut the lead to two and three over the final minutes, but Ware couldn't make any plays, and the Lobos hit five of their last six free throws.
While Williams played Robin to Gordon's Batman, it wasn't as if the 49ers didn't provide support to Ware. The rest of them shot 50 percent from the floor, matching the Lobos' strong team shooting night (25-of-50). Ennis had 13 points and seven rebounds, while T.J. Robinson added 12 points and 13 boards.
But Long Beach State goes as Ware goes, and he never was able to get good looks against a Lobos defense designed to thwart him.
"We had a pretty good game plan for Cas," Williams said. "He's a great scorer, great player. But we have some athletic guys and we were able to drag out the screens a little bit. Early in the game he was able to turn the hip on some of our big men, and we made that adjustment and tried to have him be forced back into the guard and kind of contained him a little better."
By obscuring the 49ers' biggest star, Williams now burns a bit brighter. Now, what's he got planned for Saturday?
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Some quick thoughts on New Mexico's 75-68 win over Long Beach State in the West Regional second round of the NCAA tournament.
Overview: New Mexico shot 51 percent from the floor and rode four double-digit scorers to a win over Long Beach State in an entertaining, fast-paced game. While star center Drew Gordon did his thing, he got a lot of support, and 49ers star Casper Ware had a terrible afternoon shooting. The Lobos, not a particularly great 3-point shooting team, hit 4-of-10 in the second half.
Turning point: With five minutes left, Long Beach State's James Ennis gave the 49ers a 61-59 lead on a dunk. But Kendall Williams answered on the other end with a 3-pointer, and New Mexico would never trail again.
Key player: While Gordon was very good -- 18 points, 13 rebounds, 7-of-9 from the field -- it's hard to ignore Kendall Williams' second-half contribution. He scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, including a pair of key 3-pointers on three attempts. He also had six assists and three rebounds.
Key stat: Ware is a fantastic player, but he had a poor game, shooting 5-of-19 from the field, including 2-of-9 from 3-point range. He did dish seven assists. He probably could have dished a few more.
Miscellaneous: The Lobos outrebounded their opponents in 27 of 30 regular-season games, but LBSU won the rebound battle 33-30, including a 14-7 advantage on the offensive glass. ... The game featured plenty of balance. Both teams had four players in double-figures and 12 players in the game had at least five points. ... New Mexico at 19 assists vs. 13 for LBSU, and the Lobos also had fewer turnovers -- 14 to 15. ... The Lobos had seven blocked shots.
What’s next: New Mexico will play Louisville on Saturday for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16. Times are TBA.
- No Big East team will reach the Final Four: Another big haul for the Big East. Nine of its teams will participate in this season’s edition of the NCAA tournament. But I don’t think the conference will send any teams to New Orleans. I think Syracuse, a team that’s vulnerable due to its challenges on the glass, has a tough path in the East with Ohio State and a pair of hot squads (Florida State and Vandy) standing in its way. Georgetown, Cincy and UConn could lose in the first round. Marquette has to get through Missouri. I just don’t see it. No Big East in the Big Easy.
- The Big 12 will send two squads to New Orleans: Among the 2-seeds, Missouri has the easiest path to New Orleans. The Tigers’ speed and perimeter versatility will pose matchup problems for every team in the West Region, including No. 1 seed Michigan State. Kansas losing in the first round to Detroit? Nah. The Jayhawks will beat every team in the Midwest, including the Tar Heels if they face them in the Elite Eight.[+] EnlargePeter G. Aiken/US PresswireKim English and the Tigers could be one of two teams representing the Big 12 in New Orleans.
- Vanderbilt will reach the Final Four: I know it’s the sexy pick following its win over Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game. But the Commodores shouldn’t be judged by that victory. And they shouldn’t be dismissed because of premature exits in past years. They have veterans. And they’ve built momentum down the stretch, a la Connecticut a year ago. They’ve hit nearly 40 percent of their 3s this season. The East Region is stronger than it looks with teams such as Syracuse, Ohio State, Florida State and Wisconsin in the mix. But the Commodores can emerge with their senior leadership and shooting. Plus, they have the confidence that comes from beating Kentucky, a team that they challenged in two previous meetings, too.
- Iona will win two games: I don’t agree with the Gaels’ inclusion. Washington and Drexel had stronger arguments. But just because many don’t believe they belong doesn’t mean that they won’t prove critics wrong. I think the Gaels, who own the No. 1 scoring offense in the country (83.3 ppg), are dangerous. To reach the third round in the West Region, the Gaels will have to get through BYU in Dayton and Marquette in Louisville. Mark it down. The Gaels are playing a pair of shaky defensive teams. They have three NBA-level talents in Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Lamont “Momo” Jones. As much I thought Iona didn’t have a case for a slot in the field of 68, I think the Gaels can show doubters that they’re worthy.
- The Badgers will go home early: I’m picking Montana over Wisconsin in the 13/4 matchup in the East Region. Wisconsin’s offense has stalled multiple times in recent weeks. Even though the Badgers are capable of neutralizing any offense, they’ve had problems capitalizing due to their own inconsistent offense. Montana will be ready. The Grizzlies beat their Big Sky rivals Weber state by 19 points in the conference’s tournament title game, their 14th consecutive victory. Plus, Will Cherry (16.0 ppg) can match Jordan Taylor. Grizzlies will advance.
- Long Beach State is a Sweet 16 team: Numerous NCAA tournament teams have hungry veterans. But few upperclassmen have gone through the things that T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Casper Ware have throughout their careers. The seniors missed the past two NCAA tournaments after losing in the conference tournament title game to UC Santa Barbara twice. But this season they earned the Big West’s automatic bid. If Anderson’s not ready (knee injury), then that will change Long Beach State’s March Madness potential. But even without Anderson, the league’s defensive player of the year, this is a talented team that’s played the top nonconference schedule in the country. The 49ers will not be intimidated. They’ll beat New Mexico and Louisville on their way to the Sweet 16.
- Michigan State will be the first No. 1 seed to fall: Call me crazy. But I think Memphis’ athleticism will create problems for the Spartans in the third round. I understand the “How will the Tigers guard Draymond Green?” question. But what about Will Barton and Joe Jackson? In the Big Ten, the Spartans didn’t play teams that possessed the raw athleticism that’s anchored Memphis’ roster. The Spartans will be tougher than the Tigers in this East Region matchup, but the latter has an element that Michigan State hasn’t faced since its season-opening to loss to North Carolina.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Lenny IgnelziCreighton's Doug McDermott may meet up with former high school teammate Harrison Barnes of North Carolina.
- Doug McDermott will outplay Harrison Barnes on Sunday: I expect North Carolina and Creighton to advance and set up a Sunday matchup in the Midwest Region between former high school teammates Doug McDermott and Harrison Barnes, who earned two state titles together at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa. The Tar Heels will win the game, but McDermott will be the star. Both guys have talked about this potential matchup in the past. The McDermott vs. Barnes buildup will be immense. But McDermott will outperform his prep teammate in their first collegiate meeting, albeit in a loss.
- The VCU/Wichita State winner is headed to the Sweet 16: It’s unfortunate that this game will eliminate a potent mid-major. Wichita State and VCU, a Final Four team last year, are two of the best in the country. I predict that the winner of this game will end up facing Kentucky in the Sweet 16. They’re both tough, physical defensive teams that will pressure Indiana in the round of 32. The Hoosiers have struggled outside of Bloomington. And whether they face the Shockers or the Rams, they’ll be in for a battle, one that I expect them to lose.
- The West Coast Conference won’t win one game: BYU will lose to Iona. Saint Mary’s will go down against Purdue. West Virginia will beat Gonzaga. I thought the WCC would turn the corner this year with the way BYU, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga fought for the WCC title. But all three have looked vulnerable in recent weeks. I just don’t think they’re going to advance. Plus, tough matchups for all three teams in their first games. Iona is very talented. The Boilermakers are tough, too. Kevin Jones will lead the Mountaineers to a win over the Bulldogs.
Read up on Long Beach State-Creighton, Michigan-Ohio State and the rest of Saturday night's action here. If you missed our afternoon recap, catch up now.
No. 19 Michigan 56, No. 6 Ohio State 51: Here's something I learned Saturday -- Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1986. As Dan Shulman said on the broadcast, that's kind of hard to believe. Here's something else we learned Saturday: The Wolverines have a legitimate chance to break that streak this season.
The race for the Big Ten title is officially a three-way affair. How did Michigan get there? By taking care of business at home. Saturday's win was the Wolverines' 16th consecutive victory in Ann Arbor. For much of the past 10 years, under Tommy Amaker and then John Beilein, Crisler was usually a cold, detached, almost lifeless place. On Saturday, it was rocking in Minute 1 and Minute 40 and constantly in between.
Of course, a home atmosphere is nice, but it doesn't mean much if your team can't play. And Michigan most certainly can play. Point guard Trey Burke continued his impressive freshman campaign against the Buckeyes, scoring 17 points -- including a flurry of much-needed late buckets, one of which he took straight at former grade-school teammate Jared Sullinger -- and dishing five dimes against the best perimeter defender in the country, Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. Tim Hardaway Jr. added efficient perimeter scoring, while forward Jordan Morgan scored 11 points and 11 rebounds against Sullinger. Those matchups -- point guard and forward -- should be Michigan's weaknesses, particularly against OSU. In this one, Burke and Morgan turned them into strengths.
That said, Michigan won the game on the defensive end, where it held the Buckeyes to .91 points per trip, and in some part it has the Buckeyes to thank. Shooting guard William Buford struggled yet again, going 3-of-12 and continuing his senior slump. Credit the Wolverines for forcing the Bucks into perimeter jump shots, but also blame Ohio State, which often settled for those jumpers without first attempting to get Sully into an iso situation on the low block. When Sullinger did touch the ball, the Buckeyes usually got a score. They figured this out eventually, which is what got them back into the game in the second half. But it was too little, too late. You wouldn't think you'd need to "figure out" that you should probably give the ball to Sullinger because, you know, he's really good.
Look, Ohio State remains a very good defensive team. After all, holding Michigan to 56 points on its own floor is no easy task. But the Buckeyes' offense, particularly its perimeter shooting (or lack thereof), looks like a serious liability. It lurched helplessly against Michigan State's defense last Saturday, and it played right into Michigan's hands tonight. As a result, OSU allowed its sworn rival to tie it in the league standings, a game behind MSU in the loss column. If the Buckeyes can't fix these problems, their March ceiling -- once as limitless as any team's in the country -- will suffer accordingly.
No. 14 Murray State 65, No. 16 Saint Mary's 51: How much fun is Murray, Ky., having right now? With a rare national audience and Dickie V in the house, the Racers played as well as they have all season, as their fans -- an intense, buoyant bunch -- gleefully soaked it all in. Judging by Vitale's rave reviews of the small burgh, I'd say Murray might be one of the best places in the country to spend this exact Saturday night. I kind of wish I was there. (My colleague Jason King is and had this to say about the game.)
In any case, the nation got a chance to see what this Murray State team was all about, and the timing couldn't have been better. After its loss to Tennessee State two weeks ago, the tone of the discussion around the Racers changed from "Whoa, this team could go undefeated!" to "Well, that was fun, but check out that at-large profile -- Murray State could miss the tournament!" I think we can put that debate to rest. The Racers might not be a national title contender, but with Isaiah Canaan leading the way (he had 23 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, a 5-for-8 mark beyond the arc and at least two or three downright crossovers that made this viewer yelp in enjoyment), they are certainly one of the better mid-major teams in the country and one that can give plenty of outfits issues in the NCAA tournament. Sure, some of the wins were shaky, and sure, the Ohio Valley Conference is bad, but when you win your first 23 games, guess what? You're pretty good.
Saint Mary's was far less convincing. The Gaels' offense was hobbled by Matthew Dellavedova's rolled ankle and Rob Jones' early foul trouble, but those weren't the primary causes -- and the road atmosphere and tough Murray defense don't explain it all, either. In reality, the Gaels, who have lost three of their past four (all by double digits), are just flat-out struggling. Over the course of the WCC season, the Gaels have posted about 1.17 points per possession (adjusted), best in the league. In their three recent losses, Dellavedova & Co. have failed to exceed a point per trip. Much like Creighton, this team's defense isn't nearly good enough to get the job done when the offense struggles. Much like Creighton, if the Gaels don't throw points in at something near their usual rate, they're going to lose. It's really just that simple.
Creighton 81, Long Beach State 79: Speaking of fun, how much fun was this? The finish -- Antoine Young's brilliant left-handed, last-second game winner -- was merely the icing on the cake. The 40 minutes that preceded that shot were chock full of high-octane mid-major awesomeness. LBSU's Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson and Larry Anderson trading deep 3s and inside moves with Young and Doug McDermott? Yes, please.
We couldn't have predicted the ending, but we should have seen the entertainment value coming. These teams both excel most at one thing: scoring the basketball. That's what Creighton does. When the Bluejays don't put the ball in at a high rate, they lose, as they did in their recent three-game losing streak, culminating with a home blowout at the hands of Wichita State last weekend. The defense simply isn't good enough to save Creighton from an off night.
Fortunately, Creighton has Doug McDermott. McDermott has been great all season, though he's struggled of late, and it's no coincidence his team had lost three of its past four in that span. But on Saturday night, he was amazing. Not "amazing" in a "wow, this sesame chicken is amazing" sort of way; McDermott was actually, literally amazing. He scored 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting and added 11 rebounds, six of which on the offensive end. The most impressive came late in the second half, when McDermott flew to the hoop and somehow tipped in a wayward shot arcing halfway over his head. Once it was clear McDermott was on, LBSU coach Dan Monson ordered his charges to begin aggressively double-teaming the opposing coach's son. But McDermott's eager passing and ability to make plays without the ball in his hands -- see the aforementioned tip-in -- neutralized that strategy. He was just so good. And at the perfect time, too.
As entertaining as this game was, as memorably as McDermott performed, the good news for Long Beach is that a loss at Creighton hardly hurts its at-large profile. Chances are, this team will continue its blistering Big West pace and get to the NCAA tournament in academic, auto-bid fashion. But if something goes awry in the conference tournament, LBSU's crazy nonconference schedule -- the toughest in the country by, like, a lot -- should be more than worthy of the committee's respect. Whatever happens, we'll always have Saturday night in Omaha. What a game, man. What a game.
Other observations from the night that was:
- All season, Arkansas has been bad on the road (where it is still winless) but great in its own building (where it was undefeated). That trend ended emphatically against the Gators. Florida hung a 98-68 offensive blitz on the young, up-tempo Razorbacks, led by Erving Walker's career-high 31 points on 9-of-11 from the field, 5-of-6 from 3, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Walker has been criticized this season, and rightfully so; his insistence on forcing bad shots in bad situations (at Kentucky, for example) is maddening. But you can't really play much better than he did Saturday night. Insane line.
- Harvard's vaunted defense handled rival Yale with relative ease, which immediately brings to mind images of old men in smoking jackets, teasing each other over cigars and snifters of cognac. (This is how I see Harvard-Yale. I know it's silly, but I can't help it.) This creates a rather compelling finish to the conference season: Harvard, the long-dormant program with sudden title expectations, will face traditional league powers Penn and Princeton at home this week. If the Crimson win, they'll sew up at least a share of the Ivy title, maybe more. There's something slightly poetic about that.
- Huge win for Xavier, which held on to its slim margin in the final seconds of overtime to beat Dayton, 86-83. The Musketeers have been flagging badly along the bubble cut line lately and they desperately needed a home win tonight to stay viable. Oh, and here's a fun fact (unless you're a Dayton fan): This loss made it 27 straight for the Flyers at rival Xavier. Dayton hasn't won there since -- get this -- 1981. Yikes.
- Speaking of fun facts, after an 18-point effort in a 64-53 win over Minnesota, Northwestern forward John Shurna became the Wildcats' all-time leading scorer, toppling Billy McKinney's 35-year hold on the honor. That's all well and good, but Shurna is no doubt more focused on the here and now, where the Wildcats couldn't afford to drop this game and still hope to land an at-large NCAA tournament bid, at least if the bracket was selected tomorrow. The victory keeps Northwestern very much alive. Minnesota's chances, unfortunately, will suffer in proportion.
- When it rains, it -- well, you know. The cliche certainly applies to Villanova, which is struggling through an uncharacteristically bad season but had, even without Maalik Wayns (knee) and James Bell (ankle), a 20-point lead in this game. Notre Dame came back and won in overtime and, well, yeah: That's a tough way to lose. Villanova could surely have used some brief flash of sunlight in an otherwise dark year. It was so, so close Saturday. And then it wasn't. Brutal. Notre Dame, meanwhile, won its eighth game in a row. The Irish don't always look pretty, but they get the job done.
- Southern Miss lost at Houston. Yep. That happened. It's bad news for Larry Eustachy's team, of course -- it puts a definite dent into the Golden Eagles' otherwise stellar tourney résumé, which features gaudy RPI and SOS numbers -- but also bad news for Conference USA, which would no doubt prefer to be a multi-bid league this season. Speaking of which, Memphis took its own awful loss today, too, 60-58 at home to UTEP. Yes, Memphis lost to UTEP at home. The Tigers had been quietly working their way through C-USA play with relative ease, but the offensive inconsistency that plagued them in their nonconference slate crept back in against the Miners, and that doesn't bode well for the coming tournament. Mild C-USA intrigue abounds!
- Speaking of bad losses by Mississippi teams, what is going on at Mississippi State? The Bulldogs were listless at Auburn -- Auburn! -- in a 65-55 loss, MSU's third in a row in a season that is stunningly spiraling in the direction of the bubble. The Bulldogs are just 6-6 in the SEC and have games against Kentucky and at Alabama this week. Uh-oh.
- And speaking of uh-oh and three-game losing streaks, Gonzaga lost in the closing seconds at San Francisco -- the third consecutive year it's lost to the Dons on the road. The Zags shot 51 percent and yet still lost, falling into a tie with BYU for second in the WCC, one game behind 12-2 Saint Mary's.
- Colorado State held on for a rather ugly win over Wyoming. This was a definite bubble elimination game, one Wyoming couldn't afford to drop if it wanted to preserve any chance of at-large consideration. The victory won't put CSU in the field by any means, but it keeps the Rams alive, if only barely.
- Watching Georgetown, it's hard not to be impressed with the Hoyas' pinpoint Princeton offense. But this team's real strength is its defense. We saw that again Saturday, as Georgetown held Providence to 25 percent shooting at the Dunk, a win that pushed Georgetown to 10-4 in the Big East and should quell any lingering concerns its fans may have had about another late-season collapse. That's not happening.
He’d left Gonzaga to take over Minnesota’s program in 1999, just months after leading the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight. His time with that program, however, ended with a sudden departure just a few games into the 2006-07 season.
But Monson received a second chance at Long Beach State, where he arrived before the 2007-08 season.
Saturday’s matchup between Long Beach State and Creighton in Omaha, Neb., exemplifies Long Beach State’s turnaround since Monson seized control of the program.
The 49ers are undefeated in Big West play. They have the nation’s toughest nonconference strength of schedule entering their BracketBusters outing against the Bluejays. And with a No. 45 RPI, they’re in the hunt for an at-large bid, something that has eluded Monson’s program throughout his tenure.
But a road win at Creighton (No. 30 RPI) would help the 49ers achieve that goal.
Creighton, Saint Mary’s and Murray State enter BracketBusters weekend with the most hype among the participating mid-majors.
Long Beach State, however, has a chance to prove that it belongs in that group, too.
The 49ers have played road games against Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and San Diego State. So a matchup in a hostile environment Saturday won’t intimidate his squad.
“They’ve been to pretty much every big venue there is,” Monson said.
There’s a determination about this 49ers squad that comes from starting three fifth-year seniors (T.J. Robinson, Casper Ware and Larry Anderson) who redshirted in 2007-08, the year the 49ers went 6-25. And it’s also the product of back-to-back losses in the Big West tourney title game.
This is the seniors’ last chance to reach the NCAA tournament.
They are guided by a coach who feels redeemed in Cali. Monson isn’t coaching in a major conference. His team doesn’t play on national TV every week. And he’s not making the money he earned in the Big Ten.
But he’s happier at Long Beach State.
He said his experience at Minnesota didn’t crush his desire to lead a program, but enhanced it.
“With what I went through at Minnesota, when everyone is telling you that you don’t know what you’re doing … you have to evaluate yourself,” he said. “I came out of that situation vehemently believing in myself.”
Long Beach State officials believed in him, too.
He said he enjoys a partnership with the school’s administration at LBSU. The school’s president, F. King Alexander, and athletic director, Vic Cegles, played college basketball.
Long Beach State’s nationally recognized baseball team, the Dirtbags, opens its season against Virginia Commonwealth on Friday. Cegles will have a chance to see his two sons, who both work in VCU’s athletic department. But he’ll fly to Omaha on Saturday for the Creighton-Long Beach State game.
Monson’s team has to wait on the sidelines during morning practices because Alexander plays pickup games every Tuesday and Thursday, and he joked that he never feels comfortable kicking the school’s president off the floor.
Monson said that commitment makes his job easier.
“That’s very important,” he said.
His administrators said they’ve supported Monson from beginning because they believed he could build at LBSU the way he built up Gonzaga’s program.
And now their decision to hire Monson is paying off for everyone and might include an NCAA tourney slot at the end of the year.
“He knows what it takes to build a mid-major program. There are no charters. You can’t pay assistants a lot,” Cegles said. “It’s been five years. I thought it would take five years.”
Added Monson: “We shared the same vision when I got here.”
2. Two of the most prophetic coaches in the preseason were Southern Miss’ Larry Eustachy and La Salle’s John Giannini. Both coaches told me they had teams that could make a run, and possibly their best teams. Yet, both lost key players. The more believable was Southern Miss. Still, the Golden Eagles had to go out and prove it. They have. USM gave Murray State its toughest game of the season in the Great Alaska Shootout and after snapping an 18-game losing streak to Memphis on Wednesday, they are alone atop CUSA at 7-1. Meanwhile, La Salle beat Charlotte to stay a half-game ahead of Temple in the A-10 title chase at 6-2.
3. Once Fab Melo is back with Syracuse (per Syracuse Post-Standard) for Saturday’s game at St. John’s, the top four contenders for the national title will be set. A Big 12 champ will have a strong argument to make, but heading into February it looks like Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State and North Carolina are the favorites for the national title. That doesn’t mean all will be in New Orleans or No. 1 seeds (although I find it hard to believe that Kentucky, Syracuse and OSU won’t be No. 1 seeds). And no team probably, outside of UNC, could still be a national title contender after losing two preseason perimeter rotation players to injuries (Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald).
And hey, there are some intriguing storylines here. Kansas State proved itself as an emerging defensive force after a dominant victory over Alabama on Saturday; the Wildcats just might be this tournament's favorite. Xavier is the obvious candidate for those honors, but can the Musketeers overcome the personnel losses they suffered in the Cincinnati brawl to avoid a first-round loss to a very tough Long Beach State team? For that matter, can the Beach -- which beat Pittsburgh at Pitt and has tested Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville on the road -- turn its impressive play into some attention-garnering wins? And what do we make of Clemson?
To get you up to speed, let's take a quick run through the eight teams in the 2011 Diamond Head Classic field, in order of their placement in the bracket. UTEP plays Clemson in the first round, Kansas State plays Southern Illinois, et al. You get the idea. And in case you'd rather not visualize an invisible bracket running across your computer screen, here's the bracket itself (PDF). To the preview:
Where they stand: Things kicked off in ugly fashion for the 2011-12 Miners -- their season opener was a home loss to Texas-San Antonio -- and haven't improved much since. The Miners also own a home loss to Stephen F. Austin, they split with New Mexico State, and their only high-major opponent to date, a struggling Oregon team, topped them in Eugene. UTEP was no doubt thrilled when it landed Tim Floyd in the wake of the USC mess, but the big-name coach has a major project ahead of him in his second season in El Paso.
Key player: Senior forward Gabriel McCulley doesn't get as many touches as some of his teammates, but he still leads the Miners in scoring, rebounding and steals, and he gets his points efficiently -- his offensive rating of 116.7 is vastly better than any of UTEP's other main contributors.
Key stat: 22.6. That's the percentage of possessions on which UTEP (4-5) turns the ball over to its opponents, which ranks the Miners No. 237 in the country. Put simply, UTEP doesn't take care of the ball, and that trait is dragging what could otherwise be a decent offense down.
Best-case scenario: UTEP gets the kind of game it prefers in Clemson -- a slow-paced defensive battle -- and manages to hold on long enough to take down the Tigers and play Kansas State tough in the second round.
Worst-case scenario: A first-round loss should give way to a favorable second-round matchup in Southern Illinois, but at that point, thanks to the dearth of quality teams on the wrong side of the bracket, UTEP will have missed its one chance to get a remotely impressive win.
Where they stand: It's hard to say. The Tigers are 6-4 this season, thanks in part to three disconcerting losses (to College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina, all at home). But the Tigers lost those games by three, one and three points, respectively, and thus far they've posted very impressive defensive-efficiency stats, the kind that lend confidence for the future. Perhaps this tournament, giving the Tigers the chance to test their mettle against the likes of Kansas State and/or Xavier, will help us form a more reliable picture.
Key player: Guard Andre Young is this team's leader in minutes and points, and he's been good at just about everything this year, posting an offensive rating of 129.8 (one of the top 40 in the country to date) while shooting efficiently, setting up his teammates and keeping turnovers to a minimum. Young's size (he's listed at 5-foot-9, which is almost certainly generous) could hold him back at times, but as far as efficient point guards go, he's a good one.
Key stat: 0.88. That's the number of points the Tigers allow to opponents per possession, which ranks them No. 17 in the country by Ken Pomeroy's metrics. It's a very good defense. But because Clemson has struggled to score, it has gotten bogged down in close games to seemingly inferior opponents at home, and its record has suffered as a result.
Best-case scenario: Clemson handles UTEP and moves on to play Kansas State -- another stout defensive team -- in the second round, where it finally wins one of those close games. Don't count the Tigers out.
Worst-case scenario: A loss to UTEP would certainly qualify. Then you're 6-5, and you've got a bunch of bad marks on your at-large sheet, and all of a sudden a trip to the NCAA tournament from the jumbled middle of the ACC is looking incredibly unlikely.
Where they stand: Quietly and steadily, Kansas State coach Frank Martin has his team off to a 7-1 start in 2011-12. The Wildcats' only loss came in double OT to West Virginia, but they bounced back with a 71-58 victory over Alabama on Saturday. For many, that might be proof enough that Martin's team is back and ready to wreak havoc in the Big 12. But a solid trip to Hawaii certainly couldn't.
Key player: Kansas State doesn't always look fluid on offense; when the Wildcats get their points, it's usually because freshman forward Thomas Gipson already hauled down a miss. Gipson has been something of a revelation early in his career, particularly on the offensive boards, and without his and fellow forward Jamar Samuels' contributions under the rim, K-State really struggles to score.
Key stat: 41.4. That's what Wildcats' opponents are shooting from the field (as measured by effective field-goal percentage) this season. That's the 11th-lowest mark in Division I hoops and a key reason why this defense has been so stout so far this season.
Best-case scenario: A championship. If Xavier isn't the favorite anymore -- and we'll see -- then it has to be Kansas State, which has one of the most talented outfits on the island and can heartily defend (like Clemson) but can also score a little bit, too (unlike Clemson).
Worst-case scenario: It's hard to imagine K-State falling to a truly bad SIU team in the first round, so worst-case is probably a loss in a knock-down, drag-'em-out defensive slugfest with Clemson in Round 2. If the Wildcats fall there, they lose a chance to play and beat the Musketeers in the finale, and that would be a nice little addition to the tournament resume.
Where they stand: On shaky ground. Remember when Southern Illinois was a mid-major darling and coach Chris Lowery was the next big thing? Those days are long gone now, and in their place is yet another brutal Salukis squad, one off to a 3-5 start that includes losses to Western Kentucky, Western Michigan, Northeastern and -- believe it or not -- something called Ohio Dominican. SIU's only wins to date: Chicago State, Northern Illinois, SIU-Edwardsville, three of the cupcakiest opponents you'll ever see. Yeah. It's bad.
Key player: Mamadou Seck. For one, he has a fantastic name. Two, he's basically Lowery's only effective player, a guy who contributes points, blocks, steals, assists and rebounding on both ends of the floor.
Key stat: 0.89. That's how many points the Salukis are averaging per possession this season. For reference's sake, it ranks them No. 314 in the country. There are 345 D-I basketball teams. You get the idea.
Best-case scenario: A win or two in the consolation rounds, maybe, or at least some signs of progress in close losses.
Worst-case scenario: Three more losses and the unfortunate continuation of what has already been a painful nonconference slate.
Long Beach State
Where they stand: Long Beach State's record doesn't come anywhere close to doing this team justice. Sure, the Beach is 5-5, but look closer. The 49ers have beaten Pitt in its own building. They lost by four at San Diego State, two at Montana, eight at Kansas and six at North Carolina, and they gave Louisville a decent run in the Yum! Center, too. This is an interesting tournament for Dan Monson's team. It clearly has the ability to hang with top teams on the road, let alone on a neutral floor, and gets to face a crippled Xavier squad in the first round. Could LBSU really pull this thing off?
Key player: The dynamic duo of Casper Ware and Larry Anderson. Ware and Anderson form one of, if not the, best mid-major backcourt duos in the country -- combined, they averaged 32.6 points per game -- and both are at their best when attacking opposing defenses off a miss in the open court. They're both good, and they're both very fun to watch. Don't miss 'em.
Key stat: 71.0. That's the number of possessions the 49ers average per game, which ranks them among the 20 or so fastest teams in the country. LBSU wants to run, run, run and then run some more, and if an opposing defense doesn't have its guard up, look out.
Best-case scenario: A championship! LBSU can play with the big boys, as it has proved in some incredibly hostile and difficult road environments this season. What's more, the 49ers get Xavier in the first round, before guard Mark Lyons finishes his suspension for his role in the Cincy-Xavier brawl two weeks ago. Call it an early Christmas present for Monson and company. If they get past the Muskies, hey, they might just win this thing.
Worst-case scenario: A loss to Xavier, which would at the very least banish them to the consolation bracket and probably end any and all hopes -- slim though they were -- of garnering some at-large consideration from the tournament selection committee in March.
Where they stand: Before the brawl, everything was peachy. The Musketeers were undefeated. Tu Holloway was doing his thing. In the post-brawl fallout, after suspensions to Holloway (one game), Lyons (two games) and Dezmine Wells (four games), the Musketeers looked putrid in a 64-42 home loss to Oral Roberts. Holloway is back for the start of the Diamond Head, but Lyons will miss one more game. Wells didn't make the trip. Can Xavier overcome the losses and assume its rightful position as this tournament's clear favorite?
Key player: Holloway. Xavier has had a tendency to underperform for roughly 35 minutes at any given time this season, at which point Holloway has rescued them with late 3s and clutch heroics. Without Lyons as his running mate Thursday, Tu won't be able to wait that long.
Key stat: 40.2. That would be Xavier's opponents' effective field-goal percentage, and if you remember the Kansas State stat, you'll know that it is very low -- the sixth-lowest in the country, to be precise. Xavier gets out on top of you, and it has both the speed and physicality to make sure good looks at the rim are rare.
Best-case scenario: A title. Frankly, Xavier should be the favorite, even with all the post-brawl personnel losses. Even with Wells at home, the Musketeers will be the most talented team on the island.
Worst-case scenario: That said, taking on LBSU's Ware-and-Anderson show without Lyons is a daunting task. It wouldn't be a shock to see Xavier drop this one, at which point it would be in the consolation bracket and facing the loser of the Auburn-Hawaii game. Ouch.
Where they stand: Here's to a forgiving schedule. The Tigers are 7-1 to begin the season, but check out this hardy list of opponents: McNeese State, Kennesaw State, Nicholls State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Seton Hall, South Florida, North Florida, Florida A&M. The loss (81-59) came at Seton Hall. The wins came at home. Michigan State, this is not.
Key player: This team's main strength is blocked shots, and its chief purveyor of the rejection is forward Kenny Gabriel, who records a swat on 12.2 percent of available possessions. (Fellow forward Rob Chubb is no slouch defending the rim, either.)
Key stat: 20.4. That's the percentage of available possessions when this team records a block, the third-highest in the country to date. That's a lot of blocks! Unfortunately, the Tigers haven't shown much offensive know-how just yet, and they're weak in other areas. (And, to be fair, those block rates might be the product of playing that murderer's row of interior talent you see listed above.) Either way, that mark trails only Kentucky and Connecticut this season. That has to be worth something.
Best-case scenario: A win in the first round and an encouraging coming-out party -- win or lose -- in a second-round matchup against a full-strength Xavier team. At the very least, it would help improve that dreadful nonconference strength of schedule. Ick.
Worst-case scenario: A loss to Hawaii in the first round and a blowout to either Xavier or LBSU in the second.
Where they stand: Gib Arnold's team is 5-4 and ranked No. 231 in Pomeroy's rankings. That kind of says it all. The wins have come against Cal-State Northridge, UC Davis, Pacific, Hawaii-Hilo and North Carolina A&T; the losses were a product of matchups with Gonzaga, Eastern Washington, Pepperdine and Pacific. That's exactly what you'd expect. The good news? Hawaii doesn't have to do the traveling, time-change adjusting, touristing and everything else that comes with a trip to Hawaii. The Warriors can just play. Maybe that's good for an upset or two?
Key player: Zane Johnson is this team's leading scorer, but forward Vander Joaquim -- 11.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game -- is its most productive player, and one the Warriors will need if they plan on playing at the rim with the block-happy Tigers.
Key stat: 24.3 percent. That's Hawaii's turnover rate this season, which puts it near the bottom 50 or so in the country and has, along with subpar shooting, truly stunted this offense to date.
Best-case scenario: Auburn hasn't had to experience road basketball often this season, let alone road basketball in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so Arnold's team might have an early upset (so to speak) in them here. But with LBSU or Xavier awaiting in the second round, it's hard to picture the Warriors going any further than that.
Worst-case scenario: Finishing without a win, which would mean (almost certainly) losing to Southern Illinois at some point. Losses to Southern Illinois are probably best avoided. To put it kindly.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Reserve wing Reggie Bullock has scored bigger for North Carolina this season. Maybe even better.
But never have his points been quite so key.
With the No. 4/6 Tar Heels struggling to gain their footing against fast, confident Long Beach State, Bullock’s 11 second-half points – all in a seven-minute span during which UNC turned a 6-point deficit into a 3-point lead – were a game-changer.
“He was needed a heck of a lot more than some of his other games,’’ coach Roy Williams said after his team survived 84-78 at the Smith Center on Saturday night. “I like his confidence.”
UNC forward John Henson scored a season-high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds and 4 blocks; point guard Kendall Marshall tied his career high with 16 assists and Harrison Barnes added 20 points.
But after a first half during which UNC got outrebounded, saw three of its guards combine to shoot 0-for-9 and watched 49ers point guard Casper Ware pour in 21 of his game-high 29 points, the Tar Heels needed Bullock’s confidence boost.
(As well as his points.)
“It was huge for us,” Barnes said. “…We needed him to come off the bench and give us that big lift.”
The Tar Heels trailed 51-45 when Bullock entered the game. His first 3 of the second half jump-started a rally, and his second, several minutes later, gave the Tar Heels a 57-55 lead. By the time he went back to the bench with 10:50 left, he had scored 8 consecutive points for the Tar Heels, who were leading 62-59. And the crowd was yelling “Reg-gie! Bul-lock!”
The flurry was key for the sophomore not just because it demonstrated his continued trust in the left knee that cut short his freshman season (it required surgery after he suffered a torn lateral meniscus in February), but because it shows the budding consistency Williams has been hoping for.
It marked the second consecutive game Bullock has scored in double figures (he also had 15 Tuesday against Evansville), and the fourth time in 10 games this season that he’s scored double digits off the bench.
“Reggie Bullock was huge,’’ Williams said. “I was very discouraged with some of the things going on out there. Dexter [Strickland] was 1-or-4; Kendall was 1-for-6, P.J. [Hairston] was 0-for-3. And thank goodness Reggie came in and decided he was going to make some shots from the perimeter.”
Bullock said he was inspired a bit by Ware, who made half of his 24 shots and looked early on as if he was never going to miss. “He’s one of the fastest players I’ve ever gone against,’’ Bullock said of the senior, whom he guarded on a few possessions. “He’s like a little mouse that’s running around that you’re trying to chase in the house.”
Or, in the case of Saturday, as far out of scoring range as possible.
Bullock, who has been trying to improve his defense in order to become a better all-around player, credited his second-half scoring burst to his teammates, “who got me the ball in the right places,” he said.
He wasn’t sure if it was his best game of the season, but he wants to keep improving on it. “And it helped us get the win,’’ he said. “That’s what’s most important.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A quick look at No. 4/6 North Carolina’s 84-78 victory over over Long Beach State at the Smith Center on Saturday:
What it means: That UNC can begin its week off for exams with a sigh of relief. Having already played at the likes of Louisville and Kansas, and won on the road at Pitt, Long Beach State was not intimidated by playing the Tar Heels at the Smith Center – and the 49ers showed it. LBSU led by 5 points at halftime, and UNC needed a season-high 24 points from John Henson, 20 points from Harrison Barnes and 16 assists from point guard Kendall Marshall to survive.
How it happened: LBSU led 45-40 at the break, on the strength of 21 first-half points from point guard Casper Ware – and back-to-back 3s in the final minute by guard Larry Anderson. Not only were the taller Tar Heels outrebounded in the first half, 19-16, but UNC guards Dexter Strickland, Marshall and P.J. Hairston were a combined 0-for-9 (and 0-for-6 from 3-point land).
Trailing 55-54 with about 14 minutes left in the second half, UNC finally began its breakaway when reserve guard Reggie Bullock scored his team’s next eight points, to give the Tar Heels a 62-59 lead. Buckets by Strickland, Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and Henson eventually extended the run to 18-6, giving UNC a double-figures lead at 72-61.
Ware, who scored 22 against the Tar Heels last season, scored 29 on Saturday night.
Injury report: After spraining his right ankle Tuesday, sitting out of practice Wednesday, but returning to workouts Friday, Hairston was in uniform and played, but missed all three of his shots in 9 minutes.
Hubbub: UNC forward Zeller became the 64th Tar Heels player to record 1,000 points early in the game. He got a standing ovation when it was announced at the Smith Center.
What’s next: UNC has a week off for exams before playing Appalachian State next Saturday. LBSU will face Eastern New Mexico at home on Dec. 19.
Robbi Pickeral can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: bylinerp.
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- With his team leading Long Beach State by 19 points midway through the first half Tuesday, Kansas coach Bill Self issued a warning to the Jayhawks as they huddled during a timeout.
“Guys,” Self screamed, “they’re not going away. They’re not scared.”
Nor should they have been.
Playing against top-25 caliber opponents in historic venues such as Allen Fieldhouse has become the norm for the 49ers, who won at then-No. 9 Pittsburgh last month before hitting the road for games against Louisville, San Diego State, Kansas and even a tough outpost like Montana. Up next? Saturday's trip to North Carolina. Shortly thereafter? A trip to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, where they'll open with No. 8 Xavier.
On Tuesday, senior-laden Long Beach State kept its poise and whittled KU's 19-point lead to four late in the second half before eventually falling 88-80.
“These guys have been to [Duke’s] Cameron Indoor Stadium,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. “[Saturday] will be their second time to North Carolina. They’ve been to Syracuse, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. In their four years they have been to pretty much every venue in the country besides this one.
“So we weren’t happy just to be here. We expected to win today and we didn’t get it done.”
Frustrating as Tuesday’s loss might have been, the experience should definitely pay dividends in the coming months. Long Beach will be the favorite to win the Big West Conference, with only UC Santa Barbara as a serious challenger. If the 49ers don’t earn an NCAA tournament berth automatically (they've lost in the conference tournament final each of the past two seasons), their resume should definitely catch the attention of the selection committee when it’s time to hand out at-large bids.
“Our goal is to try to get into a conversation for an at-large bid,” Monson said. “We know we’ve got to do more than just win at Pittsburgh. We know we’re a good team. We want to be a great team. We’ve got to take that next step.”
The 49ers certainly had some bright moments against Kansas. They forced 22 Jayhawks turnovers -- which led to 31 points -- and outscored Self’s squad 41-37 in the second half.
Self said he could sense how confident the 49ers were throughout the game.
“You watch them play against Pittsburgh ... they expected to win against Pitt,” Self said. “You watch them play against Louisville ... Louisville got off to a good start. After that they played them even or maybe a little better. After our good start they played us even or a little better.”
Long Beach trailed just 84-80 after James Ennis swished a 3-pointer with 47 seconds remaining. But Kansas closed out the game by making four consecutive free throws.
“A year or two [ago], we’d have gotten blown out in a game like this,” guard Larry Anderson said. “But we’re not intimidated anymore. We know we can play with these teams.”
Anderson (14 points, 7 assists) was one of four LBSU players to score in double figures Tuesday. T.J. Robinson had 19 points and Casper Ware and Ennis had 16 each.
“We’re not as good as Kansas right now,” Monson said. “But I think we can be in March, if we have the [opportunity] to get on a neutral court with some of these teams. That’s why you play some of these types of teams ... so you know where your team is at. We’ve got work to do.”
Long Beach State knows it needs to regroup in a hurry. The 49ers travel to Chapel Hill for the second consecutive year Saturday. Last season the Tar Heels eked out a 96-91 victory.
Monson said his team needs to avoid getting off to the type of poor start that made things difficult in losses to Louisville and Kansas. The Jayhawks jumped out to a 16-4 lead Tuesday and eventually stretched the cushion to 34-15.
“We’ve got to get our mindset ready to go attack people and not spend the first 10 trying to get our legs under us,” Monson said. “I think [North Carolina is] very similar [to Kansas], but more explosive offensively.
“[We gave] up 51 [points] today in the first half. It could be 65 on Saturday. We’ve just got to shore some things up and make people have to score over us. We’ve got to contest shots better and rebound the ball a little bit better to have a chance in some of these games.”
Even after the loss to Kansas, Long Beach State’s players seemed confident about their chances this weekend.
“We’ll have to play well,” Anderson said. “But we think we can win the game.”
Self, whose team improved to 6-2, believes the 49ers have a chance. Not just to beat North Carolina, but to end up in the NCAA tournament as well.
“I would think Carolina would be a big favorite to win the game,” Self said. “But they can give them problems because their wings are so fast. They’re certainly not scared. [Monson’s] done a great job with them. They’d be a fun team to coach because they’re so athletic. I can’t imagine there being a better team in their league.”
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?
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.