The Cal State Long Beach basketball team begins Big West Conference play tonight with a four-game winning streak and many unanswered questions.
Quick but sometimes lackadaisical on post defense, the 49ers (6-3) play winless San Jose State (0-7) at 7:30 tonight in the University Gymnasium. Long Beach plays host to University of the Pacific (4-5) on Saturday night.
Beyond that lurks a Jan. 9 visit to Nevada Las Vegas, which has dominated the Big West and the 49ers for years. Most likely, the Rebels will try to exploit the 49ers where they are most vulnerable--inside.
The UNLV game will be followed by a Jan. 11 showdown at New Mexico State, which finished second in the league race to Las Vegas last season.
Home games with Fresno State, which has won eight of 13 meetings with the 49ers, and Utah State follow. Then the 49ers have road games at regional rivals UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara.
Which 49er team will show up in the first few weeks of Big West Conference play? Will it be the team that was picked to finish third in a preseason coaches' poll--a team that head Coach Seth Greenberg insists has its best days ahead of it?
Or will it be the team that lacks defensive intensity and often has difficulty concentrating for a full 40 minutes?
Junior forward Lucious Harris, who has scored 61 points in his last two games, said: "We'll be ready for the opening of the conference (season)."
Scoring has not been a problem for the 49ers, who average more than 77 points per game. Harris leads the team with a 19-point average.
Long Beach has tried 42 more three-point shots than its opponents, although it has made less than 35% of its 137 attempts from that range.
In addition to Harris, guard Bobby Sears (10.8), forward Bryon Russell (10.8) and center Chris Tower (10.4) are contributing offensively.
The return of the injured Russell, a junior forward, is greatly anticipated. Although he broke his left hand in practice only three weeks ago, Russell may return to action tonight. He is expected to steady the 49er defense and give the players an emotional lift.
Said Sears, a senior point guard: "When we get Bryon back, we will definitely be a better team."
Coach Greenberg, who was disappointed in the 49ers' 11-17 record last season (sixth in the Big West), has high hopes for the 1991-92 team. He has taken some unusual steps to get his players ready for the conference season.
Calling the gymnasium his "classroom," Greenberg has closed practices. And he has scheduled the season in three parts:
* The first seven games, which included losses to three Associated Press Top 25 teams (No. 2 UCLA, No. 4 Kansas and No. 21 North Carolina Charlotte).
* The middle section, which included home victories against Azusa Pacific, a National Assn. ofIntercollegiate Athletics school, and Robert Morris, a struggling Division I program from Pennsylvania.
* The Big West schedule. Eight of the team's first 11 conference games are at home.
"I feel we have made progress," Greenberg said. "We are developing depth. We are not guarding the ball as much as I like, but we are unselfish, are shooting the ball better, and are tough down the stretch."
One area Greenberg wants to improve is free-throw shooting. The 49ers are averaging only 65% from the line. But Greenberg is optimistic that they can keep making free throws when needed.
In an 84-81 victory over Robert Morris on Monday, Long Beach made only 27 of 44 free throws, but in the final 11 minutes, the team hit 12 of 15.
Greenberg attributes this season's good start to "better team chemistry. We're much more balanced than last year . . . and we like each other more."
Greenberg, who spent 12 seasons as an assistant before getting the head coaching job at Long Beach, apparently has mellowed. He has been called for only one technical foul this season. Last year he was called for six technicals.