Ticket Punched: Aggressive scheduling may continue to pay off for Long Beach State

Some might look at Long Beach State's Big West tournament title game win on Saturday night and wonder if it was really necessary for Dan Monson to go out and schedule the nation's strongest non-conference schedule.

The 49ers notched what at the time were very impressive victories over Pitt and Xavier, while hanging tough before falling in games at North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, San Diego State and in Hawaii against Kansas State.

They went 7-6 against that schedule that included seven teams expected to be included in the NCAA tournament's field of 68. They earned loads of respect along the way for not only scheduling those games, but playing well in every one of them. And they set themselves up for a Big West season with little room for error.

Long Beach didn't lose a league game until the regular season finale and dropped its BracketBuster contest at Creighton, and entered Saturday's title game having not only lost to UC Santa Barbara on that stage each of the last two years, but needing to win to leave themselves without a reason to sweat on Sunday night.

And now, all of the talk of whether they're worthy of an at-large bid or not is moot.

Long Beach State finally exorcised its Big West title game demons with one of its finest performances of the season, squashing the Gauchos, 77-64.

The driving force, as has been the case for much of the season, was star senior point guard Casper Ware, who scored 33 points to go with his six assists. The game was tied at the half, but he hit a slew of early 3-pointers in the second half to gradually help the 49ers pull away. He had a four-point play and another one of his eight 3-pointers during a crucial 12-0 second half run that lit the fuse. Not much later, a wild celebration erupted on the Honda Center floor in Anaheim, Calif.

Immediately afterwards, too, Long Beach State became the team that no 4-, 5- or 6-seed wants to see itself lined up against when the brackets are announced.

Aside from being more battle-tested than any mid-major team in America entering the NCAA tourney, Monson is used to winning as an underdog in March. What must seem like a lifetime ago, he set the Gonzaga Cinderella story in motion back in 1999, taking the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight before taking the Minnesota gig for eight seasons.

And, you know, there's the talent.

The 49ers are deep, and have a legitimate star in Ware.

But what could make the difference between a nice first-weekend story and a legitimate tournament run will be the availability of 6-foot-5 senior wing Larry Anderson.

Anderson suffered a sprained knee ligament in the regular season finale loss to Cal State Fullerton, and the team rallied around not having him in their three Big West tourney wins.

Anderson was the Big West's Defensive Player of the Year, and not having him against Big West competition is one thing. But against potentially elite-level foes, it leaves a big hole on the floor for the 49ers.

But they finally got over the hump under Monson, and even if not having Anderson leaves them at a bit of a disadvantage, they won't face anything next weekend that will intimidate them.

Yet another risk of high-risk, high-reward non-conference scheduling.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for RunRebs.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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