Long Beach State seniors are eager to finish what they started

Long Beach State players, coaches and trainers wrapped up a morning practice this week at the Pyramid by clasping hands and forming a large circle at center court.

The message seemed clear: Hold on tight.

The best college basketball team in the Los Angeles area, hidden beneath an ode to Egyptian architecture and dwarfed in its own port by the Queen Mary, is on the final leg of a journey that began four years ago with wing players and a prayer.

The 49ers' motto is short, sweet, firm and to the point:

"Finish," star senior guard Casper Ware said. "Finish our careers, finish the season off right, finish our legacy here at Long Beach."

Legacy?

Well, that's a tricky word.

All this labor of love won't mean as much if four seniors who dug Long Beach basketball out of a tar pit can't cap it with a trip to the NCAA tournament.

It was nice that Ware, on his way off the practice court, learned he had been named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation's top point guard. Ware already has more hardware stored than a laptop computer, last season becoming the first player to be chosen the Big West Conference's offensive and defensive player of the year.

This season the 5-foot-10 guard is averaging 16.8 points and 3.3 assists per game.

But what does any of that mean without an official NCAA tournament certificate of participation?

"All top guards make the tournament," Ware said. "You don't know one top guard that doesn't go to the tournament. That's big in my career right now. That's the only thing missing, really, on my resume."

Long Beach is 16-6 going into its Big West game against Cal State Northridge on Saturday at the Pyramid, but that doesn't begin to tell the story. Four of the 49ers' defeats were road losses to San Diego State (in overtime), Louisville, Kansas (by eight points) and North Carolina (six points). Long Beach beat then-No. 9 Pittsburgh in the Steel City and then-No. 14 Xavier at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.

"People think that a tough schedule is going to pound the life out of them," fifth-year Coach Dan Monson said. "I think it's just the opposite. Kids today, I think it's impossible to diminish their confidence."

Last season, a hard-fought 22-12 campaign was severely diminished in March when a loss to UC Santa Barbara in the Big West tournament final knocked Long Beach out of the NCAA tournament.

This season, with its impressive wins and an RPI in the 30s, Long Beach is hoping to earn an at-large bid even if it doesn't win the conference tournament.

"That's why we had to get a couple of those key wins in preseason," senior guard Larry Anderson said of the wins over Pitt and Xavier. "Even if we did lose [in the Big West tournament], we'd still have really good chance."

Multiple bids are rare treats in the Big West. In 2005, Pacific and Utah State earned berths. The last time it happened before that was in 1993, with Long Beach and New Mexico State.

"Leave nothing to chance" is another Long Beach motto.

Monson said he doesn't care what scars his "gantlet" scheduling approach has left on his winning percentage — he is 76-74 at Long Beach.

"Every coach in America thinks I'm crazy," he said. "They say, "Oh, you're going to get fired.' But I always say my personal record got thrown out at Minnesota … it's probably not going to be on my tombstone."

Monson left his spit-and-polish sterling at Gonzaga. After going 52-17 in two seasons there, which included a trip to an NCAA tournament regional championship game in 1999, he was wooed to the land of lakes. Monson inherited a scandal-torn mess at Minnesota and, after seven-plus years, the school and the coach had enough of each other. There were mornings, with the snow piled up outside, that Monson didn't want to get out of bed.

Long Beach seemed the perfect witness protection relocation. Expectations were low, but the snow level was lower.

"After going through the microscope in Minnesota," he said, "I'm OK with them not knowing who I am at the grocery store."

The Monsons' perception of Southern California was all wrong.

"My wife thought that we were going to be in traffic, stuck on the freeway and breathing smog when the earthquake hit," Monson said.

The only early tremor was winning six games in 2007-08, but help was on the way in the form a quirky recruiting class led by Ware, an undersized guard from Cerritos Gahr High.

"He was a shy kid, could hardly even call plays as a freshman, and didn't like school," Monson said. "He's evolved into such a leader, such a man."

Monson talked the 6-foot-5 Anderson, a local out of Long Beach Jordan High, back from prep school in Massachusetts. While on the East Coast, the staff recruited T.J. Robinson, a 6-8 forward from Connecticut.

Robinson has been a workhorse, becoming the first Long Beach player to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.

Eugene Phelps, a 6-7 forward from Woodland Hills Taft High, completed the class.

Monson then put them through the schedule grinder, preparing them for this day.

After going 15-15 in 2008-09, the quartet appeared ready for a sophomore breakout after upsetting UCLA in a nonconference game. Long Beach also toughened up with games at Kentucky and Duke, and figured to breeze through the Big West.

Instead, Long Beach lost three of its first five conference games and ended the season 17-16.

"Sophomore blues," Monson said.

A Pyramid of success was formed last season when Long Beach coupled another rugged nonconference schedule with a 14-2 romp through the Big West, only to be shocked out of the NCAA tournament by Santa Barbara.

"That hurt," Robinson said.

Long Beach is 9-0 in the Big West this season and determined to determine its own fate. A trip to Creighton on Feb. 18, as part of ESPN's BracketBusters series, gives the 49ers another chance to boost their nonconference resume.

"We can't slip," Robinson, the senior forward, said. "We can't slip one game. One game might cost you an at-large bid. We've got to make it to that tournament."

The circle, he said, is not quite complete.

"The journey has been amazing, to come in from freshman year to now," Robinson said. "We've got something going here. This is our senior year. We want to go out with bang."

And a bid.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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