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Southern California college basketball teams struggle

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Even Long Beach State, which leads the Big West Conference, struggles with consistency.

January 14, 2009|Robyn Norwood

Across Southern California, there are college basketball teams with records so dismal they might as well start talking about next year.

Loyola Marymount is 1-16. UC Irvine is 4-11. Pepperdine, in its first season after the return of former coach Tom Asbury, is 4-13.

It's a bit different at Long Beach State, where this year is looking pretty good -- and the words "last year" are forbidden.

The 49ers, 6-25 last season, are 9-7 and lead the Big West Conference with a 4-0 record.

"I promised my guys I'd do 10 push-ups every time I said the words 'last year,' " said Dan Monson, the coach who helped build the Gonzaga program and then had an unsuccessful stint at Minnesota before landing at Long Beach last season.

The 49ers look as if they might be the new favorite in the Big West, especially with preseason choice Cal State Northridge unsteady. The Matadors' leading scorer, Deon Tresvant, is being held out of games indefinitely because he faces felony theft charges.

Monson cautioned his players this week not to get ahead of themselves.

"I've never seen a league won with four wins. We have a ways to go," he said.

Most critical for a Long Beach team that has had some wild swings: consistency.

"It's how it is with a young team," Monson said. "I wouldn't consider us contenders until we've been through the league one time."

Long Beach's nonconference season included a loss to Montana State, competitive games against Brigham Young and Wisconsin and a victory over Temple.

"They had a great win against Temple, and that one scared me because I saw Temple beat Tennessee," Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Coach Kevin Bromley said. "They've got enough talent and enough depth right now that they can have an injury or two and can overcome it."

Donovan Morris, a senior guard in his second season after transferring from Fresno State, is the 49ers' star. But he is getting help from such players as Stephan Gilling, a junior guard who transferred from Colorado State, and Casper Ware, a freshman point guard from Cerritos Gahr High who is only 5 feet 9 but is quick and alert.

The next test for Long Beach comes when it hosts Northridge on Saturday.

The Matadors (5-8, 2-1) are going through a difficult period, with Coach Bobby Braswell's son, Jeffrey, a student who is not on the team, facing charges along with Tresvant and another player after a New Year's Day theft at an electronics store where the coach's son was an employee.

Northridge plays its first game without Tresvant tonight at Riverside, where the Highlanders (9-6, 2-2) are starting to make progress in their struggle to compete in the NCAA's Division I after moving up in 2001.

With the help of USC transfer Kyle Austin, Riverside has matched its win total from last season and needs only three more to set the school's major-college record for victories. Austin, a 6-7 sophomore forward who left USC last season over playing time issues, is averaging 17.6 points and has led Riverside in scoring in every game since he became eligible last month.

"People look at it and say, 'You're crazy for leaving SC. How can you leave something like that to come to something that's not as luxurious?' " Austin said. "At the end of the day, I love to play basketball. I'd rather just play than have luxurious surroundings."

Riverside Coach Jim Wooldridge said Austin's approach sets an example for his players after their downtrodden seasons.

"He just gives our guys a little different feeling than we've had here in a year and a half," Wooldridge said. "His expectations for this team and program are very high. He impacts our team on the floor, off the floor, in the locker room and in the huddle."

The must-see player outside UCLA and USC in Southern California might be Cal State Fullerton's Josh Akognon, a senior guard who has two 41-point games this season and is the nation's sixth-leading scorer, at 24 points a game.

Akognon is an NBA hopeful, but he has to overcome his 5-11 frame and the defensive attention he attracts, especially after the departure of key players from Fullerton's NCAA tournament team last season.

"I really feel sorry for this kid," Fullerton Coach Bob Burton said. "He's facing a box and one [almost] every game. There's only so much you can do for a player when he faces that. Guys face-guard him and never leave him."

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robynnorwood@verizon.net

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