They have won three straight league games and are in second place, which must seem almost like basketball heaven to the Cal State Long Beach 49ers in light of their hellish recent past.
The 49ers' record the last two seasons was 11-45 and they were permanently lodged in the basement of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. They never even won two straight league games.
But now they are 8-8 overall and have one more victory than they had all last season. They are 3-1 in the league and trail only undefeated Nevada Las Vegas, the No. 1 team in the nation, which isn't to say they should be mentioned yet in the same breath with Las Vegas.
The season and the team are still young, and the shooting rarely rises above horrendous, so there is no guarantee that a fall may not be forthcoming. But heaven may not have to wait much longer for the vastly improved 49ers, now that an early-January blowup between the players and Coach Ron Palmer apparently has cooled.
"This team is capable of winning 15 to 17 games," Palmer said.
Critical 4-Game Stretch
Saturday, the 49ers defeated University of the Pacific, 59-50, to complete the most important stretch of four PCAA games they have had since Palmer took over in 1984. They won the last three, but the one they lost--at San Jose State on Jan. 3--may turn out to be their most significant night of the season.
That was the league opener and after the 49ers botched it badly, frustrations were evident in Palmer and the players.
CSULB had lost five of six games going into the San Jose game, tarnishing a preseason that had glittered with victories over Bradley, Houston and Pepperdine. The 49ers also had played well in a 2-point loss at UCLA and an 86-72 defeat by Georgetown.
On the plane to San Jose, as the players played cards and listened to rap music, Palmer thought they were overconfident--San Jose State had lost to Cal State Hayward . "There's no way we should feel that way coming off the two years we had," Palmer said.
But junior guard Morlon Wiley knew the team was neither confident nor happy, mainly because of Palmer's rapid shuffling of players in his effort to find an effective combination. If someone made a mistake or took an ill-advised shot, he would almost immediately find himself on the bench. Eleven players were playing each game. No one felt stable.
"We had lost the desire," Wiley said last week.
Anger Grew Throughout Loss
The 49ers played pathetically at San Jose. They made 31% of their shots. Palmer continued to run players in and out. The players griped. Palmer's anger grew throughout the 73-56 loss.
In the dressing room after the game, the normally low-key Palmer erupted at the way the 49ers had selected their shots. Some of the players complained just as loudly about not getting their fair share of shots.
After a half-hour, the players filed out and Palmer explained, "We've got a few internal problems we have to deal with."
The meeting resumed, more calmly, in Palmer's hotel suite.
"We let everything out," said junior center DeAnthony Langston. "People hadn't been expressing themselves. He (Palmer) made everyone talk. People opened up. We said we'd start playing together."
When the 49ers arrived in Utah the next day, Wiley said the players were relaxed again, laughing and joking. Desire had returned.
"Once you start losing, you lose confidence in yourself and your teammates," Wiley explained. "When you're losing, everybody starts pointing fingers. Some of the players (on the bench) were hoping the others would mess up. We were second-guessing the coach."
"Tonight is a very important game," Palmer said on Monday afternoon, Jan. 5, as he sat in a motel room. Outside, snow made the mountain town of Logan, Utah, seem even more desolate. A loss to Utah State would mean a disastrous 0-2 league start.
"For the first time, I was ticked off," he said of the San Jose game. "I think I will have a different face the rest of the year. I don't think I'll be a happy person. Even when we play well, I'm going to be mad. Maybe that's what it takes.
"(That) was as poorly a played game as we've had the last two years. We have definitely taken steps so that will never occur again."
Palmer said he would concentrate on playing eight players instead of 11.
"We will not shoot 31%," he said, adding that there would be no more shots fired wildly.
He said he would make sure no opponent is taken for granted.
'Perform or Don't Play'
And he said his message to his team was, "Perform or don't play."
He said he understood why his players had been unhappy.
"It's difficult for a kid to sit on the bench and watch someone not performing well," Palmer said. "When we're losing, we tend to grate on each other. We worry about who's starting, and fight each other."
Palmer expected the 49ers to bounce back. He talked of winning five games in a row.
So the 49ers went out against Utah State and did not shoot 31% in the first half. They shot 27% and trailed, 38-28.