Snubs, suspensions haven't slowed 49ers

Long Beach State has dealt with BracketBusters snubs and team suspensions better than expected, writes Kyle Whelliston.

Updated: February 8, 2007, 2:36 PM ET
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Back in the 1970s, inventor Patrick Flanagan discovered what he termed "pyramid power." He claimed that placement of objects inside pyramids produced electromagnetic effects that could keep fruit fresh and maintain the sharpness of razor blades; it was all easily disproved by everyone from Scientific American magazine to TV's "MythBusters."

The Long Beach State basketball team might seem to be another proven failure of that cockamamie theory: With the exception of their inaugural year in the cool cobalt blue Walter Pyramid (1994-95), it has been neither fresh nor sharp enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. But now, the 49ers have rebounded from a 2-4 nonconference start, lead the Big West Conference with a 6-2 record (15-6 overall) and have cracked the RPI's Top 100. And the team sports a perfect 10-0 record at its very triangular home.

Aaron Nixon
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesAaron Nixon, center, is among the 49ers who have risen to the challenge.
"Our guys have a definite mind-set," said fifth-year coach Larry Reynolds. "Nobody's going to beat us in the Pyramid."

Take Saturday afternoon, for instance, when the homestanding 49ers dismantled three-time defending league champion Pacific (a program that has won two NCAA Tournament games in the past three years) by a 92-64 count, a revenge win after a 78-70 Tigers victory in last year's conference title game. There was no pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo about it -- Long Beach State overwhelmed the visitors with its potent blend of speed, shooting and seniors, and the game was virtually over after 10 minutes of play.

"This is a veteran-laden team, a very balanced team," said Reynolds of his squad, which features eight seniors. "They have a lot of confidence in their abilities, almost to the point of being too confident. They're all very competitive … that, I think, is our greatest asset, that every kid out there wants to compete. Sometimes we can't make it through practice."

But that depth and resilience are being sorely tested as Long Beach State contends with two other "s" words: snubs and suspensions. The 49ers are the best BracketBusters team you won't see as part of the ESPN television package, and the Pacific romp is all the more impressive considering that the program was dealing with the temporary loss of two key seniors -- 6-4 guard and second-leading scorer Kejuan Johnson (15.1 ppg) and 6-9 sixth man Mark Dawson -- along with associate head coach Reggie Howard.

Johnson and Dawson were stuck in street clothes for three games during an NCAA investigation into payments for their pre-Long Beach State educations -- they are junior college transfers who attended Long Beach City College and Pasadena City College, respectively. But they will become eligible again in time for Saturday's game at UC Santa Barbara, and despite the combined disappearance of 20.8 points and 8.4 rebounds, those who remained won two straight games in their absence.

"Give them all the credit," Reynolds said of his other 12 49ers. "Their backs are against the wall, and we've had some guys who haven't played before, others who've had to step up minutes. And Kevin Houston, Sterling Byrd, Aaron Nixon, those guys have all stepped their games up to another level."

And despite having the highest RPI in the Big West at the time of the BracketBusters pairing selections Jan. 29, the 49ers (a predetermined home team) were left out of the 14-game TV slate and will take part in one of the 37 nontelevised games. According to their coach, two shootout losses away from the Pyramid -- a 90-83 loss at Cal State Northridge on Jan. 13 and a Jan. 25 88-84 loss at UC Irvine -- sealed the team's television fate. Instead, ESPN360 viewers will see Cal State Fullerton.

"I think we brought that on ourselves," Reynolds said of the snub. "I think that if we had won one of those games, at Irvine or Northridge, we might have been in there. I thought it was unfortunate for our guys that we didn't play very well at that particular time, because that's when the decisions were being made."

So for the second straight year, Long Beach State won't be on TV -- but soon will be able to watch plenty of it as in-flight entertainment. The event's rules stipulate that teams must return the game within two years, and after drawing WAC school Hawaii, LBSU will have to plan an overseas trip. Last year, the 49ers were 9-9 at the time of the selections, and as a road team were sent all the way to Manhattan of the MAAC.

"The kids were excited about going to New York, and they enjoyed it," Reynolds said of last year's matchup, a 108-94 Beach win. "But Hawaii? You have to fly over the ocean, as a coaching staff you only get a day to prepare … but the kids get to think we're going on vacation. It's a 'budget-buster' for us, but at least this time we have a year to prepare for it and get the budget in line. Last year we didn't, and the expense just killed us."

So if anyone has a right to gripe about the current format, it's Reynolds; in Long Beach State's two years of BracketBusting, his program has been saddled with 10,734 road miles (to and from both the Bronx and Manoa) and has zero minutes of ESPN time to show for them.

"As long as our conference wants us to participate in this, I'm for it," Reynolds said. "I don't know if repaying the game is so good, though … . A lot of coaches have talked about playing just the one game and alternating between home and away every year, I think a lot of people would be more comfortable with that. The way it is now, if you're a road team two years in a row, you get two BracketBusters away dates, the game in February and the return game. That really messes with your schedule."

We want to go and prove to the country what kind of team this is.
Long Beach State coach Larry Reynolds

But the Hawaii trip, and the looming need to replace eight seniors from the current roster, are all problems for next year -- LBSU's current incarnation will indeed get to show its wares on national TV before the season is through. On Feb. 26, the 49ers' return trip to Pacific will be televised on ESPN2 as the late game on "Big Monday."

"It's the first time the Big West has been on that platform," Reynolds said. "We want to go and prove to the country what kind of team this is."

The home fans are hoping this team is a lot like the Beach squads of the mid-'90s, when current Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg piloted the 49ers to two NCAA berths. The school isn't shy about tapping into the pre-Pyramid era for inspiration: At halftime of the Pacific game, Lucious Harris' number 30 was retired to a prolonged standing ovation. "Sweet Lou" played out his college career at the old Gold Rush Gym, but his Big West all-time record of 2,312 points and his heroic 27-point effort in a 75-72 loss to No. 6-seeded Illinois in the first round of the 1993 tournament helped lay the Pyramid's foundation.

"Feels good, seeing it up there," said Harris, before turning his attention from the steel-tube rafters to the halftime shootaround. "These guys? They had a tough start, but they're really coming together. I think they could make it all the way to March Madness."

First, though, the 49ers will have to survive a rigorous weeklong road trip, a stretch that includes games against fellow Big West tourney top-seed contenders Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara. By the time BracketBusters rolls around Feb. 17, it likely will be known whether this is the result of some mystical phenomenon involving the harmonic convergence of blue pyramid, rectangular brown floor and round orange ball … or this really is an NCAA-caliber basketball team.

"The road will be a different story and another test for us," Reynolds said. "That will define how good we really are. We'll just have to wait and see."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).