By Jeff Goodman
It was a result that somehow managed to slide under the radar.
Long Beach State 71, UC Santa Barbara 48.
It was an anticipated matchup this past Saturday between the top two teams in the Big West. UCSB ruined Long Beach's season last year when the Gauchos won the league tournament and thus the automatic bid to the NCAA tourney. Long Beach wanted a measure of revenge -- and got it with a resounding road win in Santa Barbara.
The 49ers were on everyone's radar early in the season when Dan Monson's team went into the Peterson Events Center and knocked off a Jamie Dixon team that had been nearly invincible in its home building.
Monson's squad followed it up with a near-win at a San Diego State team that has made its way into the Top 15. There was a hard-fought loss in Allen Fieldhouse against Kansas -- and also a close one in Chapel Hill against Carolina.
The Beach has done what the NCAA tournament selection committee asks -- go out and play people.
Have they won them all? No, but they did get wins over Pittsburgh (with a healthy Travon Woodall), Xavier and Auburn -- and came up just short against Kansas, UNC and San Diego State.
If Long Beach continues to roll through the Big West (the 49ers are 7-0 thus far in league play) and come up short in the league tourney, as was the case a year ago, Monson & Co. should be rewarded with an automatic bid.
But I'm not sure it'll come to that.
This team, according to Monson, is different. First of all, these guys are playing with a common goal to go dancing rather than worrying about individual agendas. Second, this team has a couple guys named James Ennis and Mike Caffey that weren't around last season.
"These seniors have really bonded as far as one common goal and that's to get to the NCAA tournament," Monson said. "We're more together. They've matured and trust each other."
But Monson said that wasn't necessarily the case until after the loss to Kansas State out in Hawaii in the championship contest of the Diamond Head Classic.
"Casper (Ware) didn't trust guys and tried to do too much," Monson said. "I really think that loss helped us."
"James Ennis and Mike Caffey give us a different dimension," he added. "Caffey is terrific and allows us to play Casper off the ball -- and the guys that come through here say Ennis may be the most talented guy on the entire team. He gives us an athletic wing who changes our team."
Monson has five guys -- four being seniors -- averaging in double-figures since league play began. There's Ware, one of the nation's top point guards. Larry Anderson has turned himself into a lights-out perimeter shooter. T.J. Robinson is a double-double machine and Eugene Phelps is averaging 10.1 points per game. Then there's the long and athletic Ennis.
"We're definitely a better team than we were last season," Monson said. "The guys are a year older, and they are on the same page now."