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Region upstarts are standing up to the big boys in basketball

Pepperdine can become the third mid-major team this season to defeat UCLA when they meet Monday night, emulating Loyola Marymount. Long Beach State and UC Riverside also have victories over brand-name schools.

November 27, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Pepperdine's Mychel Thompson dives for the steal in the second half of last year's game against UCLA.
Pepperdine's Mychel Thompson dives for the steal in the second half… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

One Southland college basketball team won a game in the Sports Arena this month, but it wasn't UCLA or USC.

One Southland player was the subject of a complimentary tweet from LeBron James, but he wasn't a Trojan or a Bruin.

One Southland coach took his team into the Arizona desert and beat a Pac-12 Conference opponent, but his name wasn't Ben Howland or Kevin O'Neill.

The best basketball in Southern California so far this season has been played by mid-majors such as Loyola Marymount, Long Beach State and Pepperdine, who hope their success against brand-name opponents amounts to more than a few early surprises.

"I would take being last year's Virginia Commonwealth or 1999's Gonzaga or 2006's George Mason," Long Beach State Coach Dan Monson said, referring to small-conference teams that went on deep NCAA tournament runs. "That is the goal of every mid-major coach."

Loyola Marymount penned the first signature victory by a local mid-major when it defeated then-No. 17 UCLA in the Bruins' home opener. Five days later, Long Beach State pulled off a road upset of then-No. 9 Pittsburgh, ending at 58 games the Panthers' home winning streak against nonconference opponents.

Other Southland teams have helped rearrange the traditional pecking order. Pepperdine knocked off Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz., Cal Poly San Luis Obispo beat USC at the Galen Center and UC Riverside defeated Washington State in the 76 Classic in Anaheim.

The uprising among traditional have-nots doesn't surprise Pepperdine Coach Marty Wilson, whose Waves (3-2) on Monday night can become the third mid-major this season to defeat UCLA (1-4) at the Sports Arena.

"It's the way college basketball is going," Wilson said. "You have the big boys losing their top players to the NBA draft every other year. At our level, you have juniors and seniors playing against freshmen and sophomores."

Long Beach State relies heavily on one junior and four seniors who, in the words of Monson, have started "virtually since they walked on campus." Pepperdine has two seniors, two juniors and one sophomore in its starting lineup.

Contrast that with USC, which has two juniors, two sophomores and one freshman in its starting lineup. UCLA had two seniors and three sophomores in its most recent starting lineup, but one of the seniors was a junior college transfer and the other has mostly come off the bench throughout his career.

Major-conference schools are skewing younger than their mid-major counterparts in large part because of early defections to the NBA. UCLA lost Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt from last season's team and USC lost Nikola Vucevic.

"When you have to replace NBA guys with young guys," Monson said, "it's going to take some time. Just because you replace them with very good players doesn't mean the advantage doesn't go to the team with experience.

"Three months from now, it will even out. That's why teams like us have to take advantage now."

Before Long Beach State beat Pittsburgh, Monson stood in front of his players and ticked off the Panthers' roster, noting it was primarily composed of freshmen and sophomores. Monson then told his players that when they were seniors in high school, the Panthers were in eighth or ninth grade.

"You guys are men right now and they are still young," Monson told his players, "so you need to play like men today."

Senior point guard Casper Ware scored a career-high 28 points to spark the 49ers. That prompted James, the Miami Heat star, to tweet "Casper Ware a problem out there!!"

UCLA sophomore center Joshua Smith went on Twitter after the Bruins' defeat against Loyola Marymount, tweeting "Just lost to some straight bums lol." UCLA has lost to just about everybody, with its only victory coming over Chaminade, a Division II school.

USC (3-4) has lost two of three games against Southern California mid-majors, beating Cal State Northridge but losing to San Luis Obispo and San Diego State.

Score two more for the little guys.

"The abundance of them is more head-scratching than any one in particular to me," Monson said of the early-season upsets. "I can't think of a year where I can remember this many this early."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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