Dan Monson learned to stop worrying about the aesthetic behind a win-loss record a long time ago.
“My career record went out the window at Minnesota,” the Long Beach State head coach joked in an interview with Today’s U.
Monson’s aggressive scheduling philosophy isn’t about piling up victories to manufacture a pretty resume for the NCAA Tournament. He’s working to have the 49ers familiar with opponents like North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas, the heavyweights of the college basketball landscape, all of which appear on Long Beach State’s 2016-’17 docket.
By knowing such teams in November and December, the aim is to compete with and possibly beat the same opponents come March.
“That’s how we got Gonzaga on the map,” Monson said. “We had a bunch of guys who had chips on their shoulders, [who] didn’t get recruited by those schools, and gave them the opportunity to go play against them.”
Monson led Gonzaga on its initial NCAA Tournament in 1999, a Cinderella story that concluded at the Elite Eight.
Before coming a win away from the Final Four that season, the Zags played Kansas, Purdue and Washington, which made games with Minnesota, Stanford and Florida in the NCAA Tournament less daunting.
In the years since, Monson’s top assistant — Mark Few — has kept Gonzaga on the same path. The Zags are no longer mid-majors playing power-conference opponents; Gonzaga’s a power program that happens to be in a mid-major conference.
“That’s what we’re trying to create here,” he said. “As long as I’m here, that’s a level we’re going to strive to achieve.”
Long Beach State’s non-conference schedule has become a calling card for the program. The 49ers’ early-season gauntlet is now as much of the November-December narrative as vacation-destination tournaments.
Playing such a daunting schedule works to improve the program twofold: First, familiarity with the highest level of the game readies Long Beach State come Big West Conference season, manifested through
two an NCAA Tournament and three NIT appearances in Monson’s tenure as head coach.
Second, the promise of high-profile games functions as a recruiting tool.
“If you ask our players… what attracted them to Long Beach State, one of the first three things they’d say is the schedule,” Monson said.
Indeed, 49er guard Justin Bibbins said of the gauntlet: “I love it.”
“You get a different feel [with] the North Carolinas and the Louisvilles. You go into a different environment where it’s more hostile, and you’re able to band together,” he said. “It’s 15 of us against 15,000 of them.”
The non-conference schedule is very much a part of Long Beach State basketball’s identity, but the difficult docket isn’t without its issues.
Long Beach State faces many of the same rigors of scheduling as its mid-major counterparts, despite the 49ers’ track record for attracting big-time games.
Home games can be a precious commodity. Long Beach State is fortunate in that it has some qualities other mid-majors lack. The Walter Pyramid, for example, seats enough (just over 5,000) for a big-time atmosphere. The university’s location in the Los Angeles metropolitan area also makes it an easy destination for visitors.
Power conference opponents have, on occasion, played in the 2-1-3, sometimes as a final tune-up en route to the Maui Invitational.
North Carolina came through there in 2012, attracting a sellout crowd. Creighton and Doug McDermott visited in 2013, the same season McDermott won National Player of the Year honors.
Such games are exceptions, however. Combining Monson’s aggressive scheduling philosophy with the typical challenges mid-majors face in filling out their non-conference schedules, this season’s slate is “over the top, even in all the craziness I’ve done before,” Monson said.
Long Beach State’s marquee home game comes Dec. 22 against Colorado State, one of a handful of quality mid-major opponents sprinkled in with names like North Carolina and Kansas.
The others — Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast — are road games. Both manifested as a result of Long Beach State filling out its remaining dates late into the summer.
“We didn’t have an exempt tournament,” Monson explained. “The last thing we added was the Battle 4 Atlantis Mainland. What we agreed to is to go to Wichita State and Louisville.”
The 49ers won’t get to see those teams in the Bahamas: As Monson said, “You’re not playing those on neutral [floors] in that tournament.”
However, as part of the Mainland Division in the preseason tournament’s bracket, Long Beach State goes to Fort Meyers, Florida, where it will see Binghamton and host Florida Gulf Coast.
Dunk City relocated from Florida Gulf Coast to USC, a short jaunt up the 110 from Long Beach State’s campus. The Eagles’ style changed since Andy Enfield’s departure, but they returned to the NCAA Tournament a season ago and are favorites to do so again as the Atlantic Sun representatives in 2017.
“It would be a great game under normal circumstances,” Monson said, adding with a laugh: “But it’s not the last game you’d add to your schedule.”
Considering both are expected to compete for NCAA Tournament bids, there is a quality to the matchup reminiscent of the discontinued Bracket Buster. Mid-majors with March aspirations met in late February with an opportunity to score a resume-building win.
In other words, it’s a game that functions nicely for aesthetic purposes. Long Beach State’s schedule has never been about aesthetics.