Even though he tailored his team's rugged non-league schedule toward getting in position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Long Beach State coach Dan Monson hopes he doesn't have to test whether his daring plan worked.
The 49ers need only three wins in three days at this week's Big West tournament to drain all the anxiety out of Selection Sunday and give their accomplished senior class the chance to play on college basketball's biggest stage for the first time.
If they accomplish that, it will avenge their back-to-back losses to UC Santa Barbara in the Big West title game the past two years. If they fall short, it will mean joining Drexel, Iona and Oral Roberts on a growing list of mid-major conference champs hoping the selection committee grants them an NCAA tournament lifeline.
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"We know an automatic bid is in our control and an at-large is not," Monson said Monday. "I told our guys this morning, the only way we know we can get into the NCAA tournament is to go win three games. It's great for the media and fans to speculate, but we can't get involved in that. We know for sure that if we go win three games, we're in. That's what our goal is."
Monson's stance is clearly the correct one for him to take because an at-large bid would be iffy at best.
Long Beach State played the nation's strongest non-league schedule this season, but the only two juggernauts the 49ers toppled were the worst Pittsburgh team of Jamie Dixon's tenure and a Xavier team that has slipped to the bubble. Are those wins, a slew of close losses to elite teams and a 15-1 Big West record enough to sway the selection committee? Even Monson admits he's not certain.
A 29-3 record in Big West regular season play the past two seasons suggests winning the conference tournament will be no problem for Long Beach State, but several factors indicate it won't be a 49ers walkover. They've shot poorly and played tight under pressure in the past two Big West tournaments and they may be without one of their best players this week.
Senior Larry Anderson, a first-team all-conference small forward, is doubtful for the Big West Tournament after he sprained the MCL in his right knee against Cal State Fullerton last Saturday evening. Monson believes Anderson will be healthy enough to contribute in either the NCAA tournament or the NIT, but he's less certain about this weekend.
"The positive is I don't think it's career ending, but I think it's unrealistic to think we're going to get a ton of production out of him after one week with that injury," Monson said. "If it was the middle of the year, it would be different, but with what's at stake this weekend, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he would try on it and see how it goes."
While Monson envisions either Mike Caffey or Edis Dervisevic replacing Anderson in the lineup if he can't play, the Long Beach State coach views it as a team effort to replace the senior's production. Anderson, a three-year captain, averages 14.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game and he is also the conference's best perimeter defender.
The likely challenge of winning without Anderson begins Thursday when the 49ers meet a UC Davis team that is among the worst in Division I. While a semifinal matchup with either Cal Poly or UC Riverside should only be slightly more challenging, the 49ers would likely meet either longtime nemesis UCSB or the only Big West team to beat them, Cal State Fullerton, in the title game.
"Larry has been a foundation of this program for four years now," Monson said. "We know the value of him. But again, we're a really good basketball team with Larry and we're a good basketball team without him. We just have to go prove it. There's still nobody in this league that if we play well, we can't beat with or without Larry."
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