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Under Dan Monson, Long Beach State challenges the big kids

The coach is raising the 49ers' profile by scheduling the likes of North Carolina and Kansas. His team already has an attention-getting win over Pittsburgh this year.

November 25, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Casper Ware, a senior guard and leader of Long Beach State, waits to return to the game against Boise State on Tuesday at the Pyramid.
Casper Ware, a senior guard and leader of Long Beach State, waits to return… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

At first glance, Dan Monson's office at the Pyramid looks like the typical coach's retreat, filled with plaques, photos and memorabilia from his 25-year career at Alabama Birmingham, Gonzaga, Minnesota and Long Beach State.

But his office, like his coaching philosophy, deserves a closer look.

Close to his desk, near windows that overlook the court, Monson has set up a small candy store. Red licorice gleams in a jar. Chocolates and chewy candies are piled beside candy bars. It's a nutritionist's nightmare and a kid's delight.

"It's a way to get them in here to talk to me," Monson said of his players.

He's really giving them far more than empty calories. He's giving them a challenge, subjecting them to a tough schedule every year in hopes they'll rise above the mid-major pack. After several disappointments — some respectably close — they upset ninth-ranked Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, Long Beach's first victory over a top-25 team since a one-point triumph over 25th-ranked New Mexico State on Feb. 24, 1994.

"We've been playing that schedule since we were freshmen, so it was about time that we got a win against one of those big schools," said guard Larry Anderson, one of four senior starters.

Their exhilaration lasted only until their next game, an overtime loss to San Diego State, but Monson said the experience was worthwhile.

"We were all over ESPN for two days," he said, "and granted, it was only for two days and we crashed and burned Saturday, but that's two more days than we would have had if we had played Pittsburg State instead of Pittsburgh.

"It's just one game, but you have to get that one game before you get the second one and to keep building."

Pitt was the first of the top-20 opponents Monson scheduled this season, all on the road. The 49ers will face No. 7 Louisville on Monday, No. 14 Kansas on Dec. 6, No. 1 North Carolina on Dec. 10 and No. 12 Xavier on Dec. 22 at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

Why does he do it?

Why not?

He's not crazy. He's reusing the ambitious strategy he employed at Gonzaga, whose Elite Eight breakthrough in 1999 launched one of the country's most successful mid-major programs. In Monson's philosophy, it's better to dream big and slip occasionally than play it safe and never learn your limits.

"I think every mid-major, your goal is to elevate into some recognition and up with the upper levels, so to speak," Monson said. "Being able to do that at Gonzaga, I just felt that here, the players in this area that can't go to those schools want to play against them. So I thought it would help recruiting.

"I also felt like people wanted a program at that level and that in order for them to see what that is you have to play against them and show the kids and everybody that hey, we're not there yet, or we're getting there, or whatever."

Players search for those big matchups when the schedule is announced.

"You can't not look at those games, at teams like Kansas, North Carolina, all of them. They're exciting to play. That was the reason I came here," said senior guard Casper Ware, who scored a career-high 28 points against Pitt. "Coach Monson told me that we will be playing hard teams, national teams, so you don't need to go to a big school to get noticed. I really liked that about this school."

The seniors have played at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, at Kentucky, Syracuse, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. They've beaten UCLA and, last year, Iowa.

They've also lost to UC Santa Barbara in the Big West title game each of the last two seasons and missed the NCAA tournament.

"In our first meeting this year I told our kids we can't be happy to play the No. 1 strictest schedule in the country like we have the last two years. We need to have success in that schedule," Monson said.

They followed the San Diego State loss with an uneven 72-62 victory over Boise State, led by T.J. Robinson's 18-point, 13-rebound performance. On Saturday they play at Montana (3-1), a team they can't overlook in their eagerness to face higher-profile Louisville.

"Before we can play with the big boys we have to dominate our mid-major status and teams like us," Ware said.

Monson said the 49ers could run with those big boys someday, though he said the list of mid-majors who have taken the next step up is limited to Gonzaga, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason.

"We have all the ingredients here. We have a great facility, we have administrative support. We've got great players in the area. So those are a great start," he said.

"My job isn't to say, 'It can't be done.' It's to try and go do it."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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