This Time, No Doubt About It

Seth Greenberg, happy wanderer, bounced from handshake to handshake in the Long Beach Arena media room Sunday, giving 2-year-old daughter Ella a tour of the place before a flickering TV monitor caught his eye.

On the screen was a tape delay of the just-completed Big West Tournament championship final, Cal State Long Beach versus New Mexico State.

Greenberg pulled up to watch, a winning coach unable to get enough of a good thing, right?

Not if you know Greenberg, not if you know Cal State Long Beach.

"I want to make sure the score doesn't change," Greenberg quipped.

When you coach basketball at Long Beach, you have a right to be a little paranoid. Three Big West Tournaments ago, Greenberg was an assistant to Joe Harrington on a Long Beach team that took a 22-7 record into the championship game against Nevada Las Vegas. Las Vegas had Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and enough steam to eventually win the NCAA title that year. Long Beach lost by 18 points, certainly no disgrace, and then lost its bid to the NCAA Tournament.

A disgrace?

Most certainly.

"That was our best team since I've been here," said guard Lucious Harris, a freshman starter on that 1989-90 squad. "We beat Purdue. We beat Texas. We deserved to go . . . but at halftime, they told us we had to beat Vegas or we were out. We couldn't believe it. We tried to play the second half, but (the pressure) took a toll on us."

Harris frowned.

"I think (the Big West) deserved four teams that year," he said, "but they took just three."

Harris smiled.

"It took us three more years, but we got there."

No ifs, ands, buts, NCAA bricks or tampered final scores about it. As ESPN reassured Greenberg with its rebroadcast, Long Beach had indeed defeated New Mexico State, 70-62, and had indeed advanced to the NCAA's postseason field for the first time since 1977.

The 49ers will play Illinois in a first-round game Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Greenberg has the NCAA's word on it.

"I wouldn't want that job," Greenberg said, referring to the selection committee. "Every year, four or five great teams don't get in . . .

"This year, we took it into our own hands."

It was the only way to go. As UNLV learned Sunday, there's an ancient Big West proverb: Better to build a fortress upon a mound of sand than to bank on the NCAA granting you an at-large berth. Last year, the Big West received no at-large berths. This year, the NCAA consented to one--shipping New Mexico State to the East Regional, but then New Mexico State is a paltry 25-7.

UNLV, 21-7, doesn't go. That two-point loss to Long Beach in Saturday night's semifinal was a doozy. One basket, one defeat--and the Rebels drop from 19th in the nation to 65th.

Rollie Massimino has probably noticed: Rider makes the tournament, J.R. Rider doesn't.

"That's what bothers me," Greenberg said. "Our conference doesn't get the respect it deserves. We only had one bad loss all season, to Northridge, but we weren't going to get an at-large berth. If we'd lost by one point today, we wouldn't have gotten in.

"Knowing that, it was easy to get our players pointing to this tournament. If we didn't win it, we weren't going anywhere."

Not even to the NIT.

"If they put us in the NIT," forward Bryon Russell said, "we'd probably just forfeit our games."

Instead, the NCAA finds itself with an extremely wild card in the lower half of its West bracket. Long Beach beat Kansas in Kansas, beat UNLV twice, beat New Mexico State twice. It also lost to Cal State Northridge. The 49ers had the best overall talent in the Big West this season, but finished fourth, behind the University of the Pacific.

Where the 49ers go from here, nobody knows, least of all the 49ers.

"We've experienced every peak and every valley there is in college basketball," Greenberg said. "The Kansas game was as exciting as it gets, the Northridge game was as discouraging as it gets."

Knowing the terrain as he does, Harris said, "The sky's the limit. If we do what we're supposed to do, the way we did this weekend, anything can happen."

What the 49ers are supposed to do is get the basketball to Harris, the Big West's all-time leading scorer and consensus first-round NBA draft selection.

Failing that, the 49ers are supposed to get the basketball to either of their free-styling forwards, Russell or Rod Hannibal. "That's their big three," New Mexico State Coach Neil McCarthy said. "Hannibal, Russell, Harris--any one of them can hurt you."

Sunday, each of them did. Hannibal was four for four beyond the three-point line, finishing with 18 points. Meanwhile, Russell kept dunking, Harris kept driving and both scored 16 points, finishing off the Aggies.

Harris and Russell were part of the explosive nucleus Greenberg inherited from Harrington after that near-miss in 1990. When the next two Long Beach seasons yielded records of 11-17 and 18-12, Greenberg began to be called many things--and not one of them was "nuclear physicist."

"Coming off that 11-17 year, a lot of people were wondering what's going on," Greenberg said. "You work all these years to get this opportunity, to become a Division I head coach, and suddenly you're thinking, 'Is it worth it?' You wonder, 'Why isn't it happening? Isn't it supposed to be better than this?' "

Luckily for Greenberg, he got to hang around long enough to catch a peek at the other side. Now he has a team with a 22-9 record. Now he has a team on the road to the Final Four.

No one can ever take that away from him. Not even the NCAA.

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