PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)Dan Monson went down this road more than a decade ago, bringing a talented smaller-conference school with a name no one knew how to pronounce to the NCAA tournament and beginning a string of success for that school with an unforgettable tourney run.
Long Beach State is easier to pronounce than Gonzaga. But the 12th-seeded Long Beach State group Monson brings to Thursday’s West Region second-round matchup against No. 5 seed New Mexico (27-6) could be just as dangerous.
Led by Big West Conference player of the year Casper Ware, the 49ers (25-8) faced one of the most difficult schedules in the country in the hopes of getting the types of challenges that would benefit them when March arrived. Their opening NCAA challenge is a New Mexico team that has won 12 of 14 and knocked off UNLV and San Diego State to win the Mountain West Conference tourney last weekend.
“From my instance we don’t want to change anything. You get to the middle of March and start changing things, you’re probably setting yourself up,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said.
It’s the first tournament appearance for the 49ers since 2007, but Monson’s been here twice before. In 1999, he led Gonzaga on a stirring tournament run to the regional finals before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut. That run landed Monson a job at Minnesota, where he inherited a program on probation and eventually turned the Golden Gophers into a tournament team in 2005.
Monson resigned from Minnesota early in the 2006-07 season and was hired a year later at Long Beach State, where he’s taken a talented first recruiting class and gotten the program into the NCAAs.
While it’s usually just a goal for mid-major programs to find their way into the tournament, the feeling for the 49ers this year was relief after knocking off UC Santa Barbara in the Big West championship game after consecutive seasons of losing to UCSB in the conference title game.
Having reached the tournament at both a power conference program and a mid-major, Monson has come to appreciate the rewarding feeling that comes with a tourney bid for the smaller program.
“This felt like I was taking a BCS team because it was just a sense of relief. This is a program and a class and a team that expected to go to the NCAA tournament, and it was my job to get them here,” Monson said. “I’m just relieved that we were able to get that done, much like at Minnesota when you’re expected to go every year. But it is, I think, by and large most times just more of a – more fun at this level, to defy more odds.”
While this trip is rewarding for Monson and his team, it’s also a difficult matchup, with Alford being one of his closest friends in the profession. The duo first struck up a friendship at the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1997 when Monson was at Gonzaga and Alford was at Southwest Missouri State – now Missouri State. The pair ended up in the Big Ten at the same time when Monson went to Minnesota and Alford took over at Iowa. Coincidentally, Alford took over at New Mexico at the same time Monson ended up at LBSU.
They even took the time to talk Sunday night after the brackets were revealed.
“One thing I told him, I said, `It is tough to play friends, but one thing we know is that one of us will be playing on Saturday and at least the other one knows that they lost to somebody that they respect and care about,'” Monson said. “So I guess that has some sort of consolation to it.”
Ware is the 49ers’ star, averaging 17.2 points for the season and scoring at least 20 points in 10 of the 49ers’ 33 games, including 33 points in the Big West title game win. But LBSU may be short-handed on Thursday with all-conference guard Larry Anderson still questionable with a knee injury suffered two weeks ago.
Alford said the Lobos are preparing as though Anderson is going to play, even though the 14-point per game scorer hasn’t seen the floor since being injured on March 3. Anderson said his knee was still sore.
“If it’s too sore, then I’m probably not going to play,” Anderson said. “I want to try to get a game-like feel when I’m out on the court to see if I’m ready.”
Despite being in the tournament for the third time in four years, the Lobos are trying to settle some restless fans who haven’t seen New Mexico advance past the first weekend of the tournament since 1974. New Mexico was a No. 3 seed two years ago but was knocked out by 11th-seeded Washington in the second round.
Alford was even reminded that President Barack Obama picked the Lobos to reach the round of 16 in his bracket this year.
“Smart man,” Alford said. “We’re optimistic about it. We’re playing good basketball. I don’t know if our goal is just to stop there.”