When the final buzzer rang out through The Pyramid on Nov. 10, 2007, mercifully marking the end of last year's Long Beach State men's basketball home opening 40-point blowout courtesy of BYU, I looked across the court from the bewildered student section to the LBSU bench and wondered how new head coach Dan Monson would ever survive the season.The Monson era of Long Beach State basketball couldn't have gotten off to much of a worse start, due in large part to the decidedly short sided hand that Monson was dealt his first year. Every single player who made an impact the previous year had graduated, and to make matters worse the program was put on probation because of recruiting violations left over from the previous year's coaching regime. Throw in some young and inexperienced players, and it's no wonder The Beach limped to a 6-25 record. "You have to be careful on just evaluating your team on wins and losses," Monson said from his office overlooking center court of The Pyramid. "Last year's team was who they were, by no fault of theirs. But they worked hard everyday and they did improve throughout the year. Once you have your team in place, that's all you can really judge them on, how hard they are working and if they improve and that they continue to be coachable, and they certainly did that last year."
As the season wore on, from my front row spot in the Monson Maniac student section, I saw Monson get in players' faces when they weren't doing something right. I saw immediate substitutions after haphazard play from several 49ers. I even saw Monson kick the rotating advertisements under the scorekeeper's table a few times. But one thing I never saw was Monson give up. Every minute on the court was a time to learn and improve, and Monson consistently instilled this idea in his players' heads.
It's this intensity and will to win that makes me most excited about the Monson era at LBSU.
Though the team has made huge strides since last season, Monson is the first to admit that the team still has some work to do and will have to focus increasingly hard to succeed this season. To ignite this improvement, the coach's number one goal regarding this upcoming season was getting the best recruiting class that he could.
"The new recruits are going to be relied on a lot heavier here than at most places, and that was a premise that we recruited them on," Monson said. "We told them when we recruited them that we needed them to come in and make an impact and be able to help us right away."
Freshman recruits like backup point guard Casper Ware, highly athletic Long Beach native Larry Anderson, strong inside presence T.J. Robinson, new addition Eugene Phelps, and the 7-foot true freshman Mike Vantrimpont will all be called upon by Monson throughout the year to provide support to the team. With this new team Monson hopes to implore a "more uptempo offense, be able to play more straight man-to-man defense and be able to be a little more conventional." Most importantly, these new players will provide more scoring options, something that was sorely lacking from last year's team.
"Hopefully we have some other players to help alleviate some of the scoring that Donovan Morris had to do last year," Monson said. "We just did not have a lot of scoring options. Donovan did a great job of doing what he needed to do for our team to be successful. The problem was it was pretty unrealistic."
Morris will look to build upon his impressive junior campaign, where he led the league in scoring, by being more efficient on the court and utilizing the new weapons around him.
"The biggest thing Morris has to do is that we need the same production out of him this year as we did last year, but we need to do it more efficiently," Monson said. "Instead of doing it in 39 minutes, hopefully in 34 or 35 and not have to play as many minutes. It would be great if he averaged 20 points again, but instead of doing it in 15 shots, doing it in 11 or 12."
One of the most important aspects of providing help to Morris will be strengthening the inside game and having a strong presence near the hoop.
"My biggest concern going into the year is that we do have an inside presence," Monson said. "Brian Freeman has gained about 30 pounds and hopefully that added strength will help him be able to get post-position better. Andrew Flemming has gained 20 pounds, Arturas Lazdauskas is in the best shape of his career. All these guys have worked really hard to try and shore up our inside game."
This young 49er team will be tested right from the beginning, with tough non-conference games at BYU, University of Wisconsin and Syracuse - all traditional powerhouse basketball programs.
"The schedule is certainly a little ambitious for this team, but I think we'll learn a lot about who we are in those games," Monson said. "It's a fine line as a coach though, to find out who you are, but you also don't want the players to lose their confidence."
Monson hopes his team will be able to gain valuable experience from these tough road games and carry it into Big West conference play in a year in which the division seems as wide open and unpredictable as ever. With consistent improvement and dedication, Monson hopes that he can mold these young players into a solid team that can compete each night.
"Every year you strive to win championships. Is that realistic this year? I don't know," Monson said. "There is a lot of newness here. I expect this team to be able to compete with every team in the Big West, and I think that if we continue to improve throughout the year that by March we will be consistent enough to put three games together in the league tournament to get to the NCAA."
Under the watchful eyes of Coach Monson, the men's basketball team hopes to improve greatly throughout the year and make another run at the NCAA tournament. Beyond wins and losses, Monson has a bigger goal for Long Beach State basketball: a return to its roots as a powerhouse basketball program.
"Long Beach State has a great basketball tradition, and we want to re-establish that," Monson said. "I want to re-establish this as one of the premiere basketball programs on the west coast as it has been in past years. We want to get back to that point, but we want to make sure we do that in the right way. We want to make sure we don't take any shortcuts to get there and that we get there with the right kind of people."
If there was ever a coach I believe can do this for The Beach, it's Dan Monson.