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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / 2000-2001 PREVIEW

49ers Remain Enthusiastic After Breakthrough Season

Long Beach State: Team expected to contend despite key losses from 24-6 team.

November 16, 2000|ERIC STEPHENS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, questions loomed over the Long Beach State men's basketball team.

Would the talented 49ers ever fulfill their potential? Could they be a real factor in the Big West Conference? Was Coach Wayne Morgan the right person to lead them to prominence?

The 49ers answered all of those questions in a make-or-break 24-6 season that earned them a spot in the National Invitation Tournament. They won 15 consecutive games and captured the Western Division title. And Long Beach officials rewarded Morgan with a three-year contract extension.

Coaches and media believe the 49ers are here to stay, picking them second behind Utah State in the nine-team conference, which abandoned the two-division format after Nevada, New Mexico State and North Texas left.

But with the loss of conference player of the year Mate Milisa and defensive whiz Antrone Lee, Morgan is cautious in assessing the team's prospects.

"We have the chance to be good but we've got a different team," Morgan said. "This year, we've got a lot of new guys and it's going to take time for us to come together as a team."

Without Milisa, the 49ers will turn back to shooting guard Ramel "Rock" Lloyd on offense. Preseason publications have picked Lloyd as a Big West player-of-the-year candidate, but he will have to rebound from a subpar junior year.

After a big sophomore season in which he averaged 18 points, Lloyd's scoring average fell to 14.6 last season. The 6-foot-4 senior also played fewer minutes and had fewer rebounds.

Lloyd said he is ready to have a big season.

"I don't view my year [last year] as a disappointment," he said. "My role changed and this year my role will change again. This year, I want to improve my leadership skills."

Three other players, senior center Rudy Williams, senior forward Grant Stone and junior point guard Ron Johnson, will help anchor a team that added several talented junior college transfers.

Williams, who averaged 11.7 points and 7.2 rebounds, had off-season surgery on both ankles and is expected to be ready by Friday's opener at Southern Illinois. Stone is the team's emotional leader and will help ease the loss of Lee. Johnson is who Morgan called "the most improved player I've seen year to year since I've been here."

Among the newcomers are junior transfer Lemi Williams, a 6-6 swingman who will start at small forward, and Michael Darrett, a 6-2 junior who will back up Johnson. Williams averaged 18.9 points at Mineral Area JC in Missouri last year, while Darrett averaged 12.7 points and 4.5 assists for Olney Central College in Illinois.

However, the 49ers took a hit with injuries to incoming 6-8 big men Vance Lawhorn and Tadeu Souza. Lawhorn had knee surgery three weeks ago and may not be ready until December. Souza is redshirting after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

"If we are healthy, we will be very entertaining," Morgan said.

And then there is the "ex" factor. Ex-UCLA forward Travis Reed is eligible to play after sitting out last year because of his transfer.

The 6-8, 240-pound junior adds sorely needed muscle inside. He had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in his first 49er appearance against the Los Angeles All-Stars.

"I'm not Mate but I'm just going to do my best to help this team," Reed said.

Williams said he is excited about playing with Reed.

"I've never played with a body as big as his," the 6-9 center said. "He's definitely going to be a big plus."

Long Beach's best season since 1973-74 wasn't without its share of disappointment. The 49ers lost in overtime to New Mexico State in the Big West tournament semifinals and the defeat likely cost them a NCAA tournament berth.

This year, the 49ers upgraded their schedule. Gone are teams like Cal State Monterey Bay and Albany. In their place are nationally ranked Stanford and Utah.

In addition, Long Beach plays Pepperdine and USC, two teams that also will help boost its RPI. Morgan said there was no overt attempt to upgrade the schedule but welcomed the challenges that come with it.

"I think it's a very ambitious schedule," Morgan said. "The players like it. That's why they come to play college basketball . . . to play against the best."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Long Beach State / 49ers at a Glance

Date: Opponent, Time

Friday: at Southern Illinois, 5

Tuesday: AIR FORCE, 7:30

Nov. 24: #San Francisco, 2

Nov. 25: #Big Island Invitational

Nov. 26: #Big Island Invitational

Dec. 2: STANFORD, 7:30

Dec. 6: PEPPERDINE, 7:30

Dec. 9: *at Idaho, 7

Dec. 14: CAL STATE DOMINGUEZ HILLS, 7:30

Dec. 18: at Loyola Marymount, 7

Dec. 22: TEXAS A&M, 7:15

Dec. 30: at USC, 5:30

Jan. 3: at Utah, 6:30

Jan. 6: *CAL STATE FULLERTON, 7:30

Jan. 11: *at Boise State, 6:30

Jan. 18: *at UC Santa Barbara, 9

Jan. 20: *CAL POLY SAN LUIS OBISPO, 7:30

Jan. 24: at UC Riverside, 7

Jan. 27: *at Pacific, 7

Feb. 1: *UC SANTA BARBARA, 5:30

Feb. 3: *UC IRVINE, 9

Feb. 8: *at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 5:30

Feb. 10: *IDAHO, 7:30

Feb. 14: *BOISE STATE, 7:30

Feb. 17: *UTAH STATE, 5

Feb. 22: *at UC Irvine, 7

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