Another formidable schedule awaits Long Beach State next season
In addition to name-brand appeal, formidable talent and a well-respected coach, Long Beach State coach Dan Monson notes there's something else top programs need to be considered truly elite.
"If you're going to be a top 10 team, you have to put Long Beach on your schedule," he quipped.
There's a kernel of truth to that joke even if Monson meant it to be tongue-in-cheek. The 49ers faced four Final Four teams and 21 NCAA tournament teams in non-league play the past three seasons, crisscrossing the nation to challenge as many blue bloods as possible in November and December.
Despite the departure of Casper Ware, Larry Anderson and five other seniors off last year's 25-win team, Monson scheduled just as aggressively next season as any other year in his tenure. Long Beach State will host North Carolina and a BracketBusters game and travel to USC, Arizona, UCLA, Ohio State and Syracuse.
What Monson likes better about this schedule than previous incarnations is the travel isn't quite as daunting.
UCLA coach Ben Howland approached Monson midway through last season about setting up a game, a rarity for a Bruins team that has shied away from playing top in-state foes in non-league play. Arizona coach Sean Miller asked Monson for a game as well and USC coach Kevin O'Neill even agreed to start a home-and-home series.
"We were able to get some top West Coast teams to buy into what we're doing," Monson said. "That's good for us to be recognized as a team that your fans are going to understand may cause some problems.
"I went through that at Gonzaga. At first,we were not OK to play because nobody knows we are a tough game except the coaches. Now I think fans understand, so we're kind of at that next step. The following step will be if we get to the recognition where it's OK for top teams to come to our place. We're getting that a little bit with USC and North Carolina."
Monson knows some of his peers will think he's crazy for creating such a daunting schedule for a team that sustained heavy personnel losses, but he believes challenging his team in non-league play will pay off.
First of all, Long Beach State has enjoyed some success against elite programs, defeating Pittsburgh and Xavier last season, toppling UCLA in 2010 and playing a handful of close games against other powerhouses. Secondly, the 49ers may not have Ware and Anderson, but they'll still enter the season as Big West favorites thanks to an influx of talented power-conference transfers.
Maybe the biggest reason Monson isn't deviating from his scheduling philosophy, however, is that it's starting to pay off in recruiting. Arizona State's Keala King, West Virginia's Dan Jennings, Loyola Marymount's Edgar Garibay and DePaul's Tony Freeland all cited the chance to play elite teams as one of the major reasons they transferred to Long Beach State in the past two years.
"It has become our recruiting mantra," Monson said. "If kids are unhappy in a big place, they'll say, 'You know what, we can go to Long Beach and still play those teams.' All four of those transfers, one of the big things was the schedule. They know that every year we're going to have top teams on our schedule."
Whether Long Beach State can spring another high-profile upset or two this season will probably depend on how quick the newcomers mesh with the handful of key returners from last season.
Wing James Ennis showed signs last year he may be capable of emerging as a go-to scorer, averaging 10 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists as no better than the fourth option on senior-laden team. King and sophomore guard Mike Caffey will help solidify the backcourt, while Garibay and Jennings will bolster a frontcourt hurt by the graduation of Eugene Phelps and T.J. Robinson.
"Our goal is to always challenge in the Big West, and I think the talent is there," Monson said. "There's a lot of individual talent, but is there a team? When you have that many transfers, they came for themselves. They left for personal reasons, they come to you as individuals and they've got to buy into what makes the team successful. So I know there's enough talent to contend and now it's my job to get them on the same page."
Monson still has a few more months to get his team to jell and his newcomers to put the team above their individual interests.
If that happens by November, the 49ers will be dangerous once again. If not, with their schedule, they'll be in for a rough winter.