An NCAA bid in the city they call Long Beach?

Originally Published: July 20, 2006
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

Beach party

Big West It's not something Larry Reynolds would suggest most college basketball coaches try late in their contract status, not a strategy that would rank first or second or even 10th on his list of ways to improve a program and save a job.

But in the case of Long Beach State last year, desperate times called for faster measures -- an entirely new offensive approach to begin his fourth season.

Pacific has ruled the Big West Conference for a while now, advancing to three straight NCAA Tournaments -- the most in the league since former Big West member New Mexico State made five consecutive trips in the early 1990s. But it's a streak the Tigers could find difficult to maintain, given the rise of a team like Long Beach.

Larry Reynolds
AP Photo/D. Ross CameronIt won't be a day at the beach when Big West foes visit Larry Reynolds and the Beach.

The suggestion (read: demand) for the 49ers to play a more up-tempo and exciting style came from within the administration before last season, a proposal Reynolds could hardly ignore since his three-year record stood at a forgettable 21-62.

He went 5-22 his first season before finishing 6-20 and 10-20 in the next two. The life-support machine was working, but that line was growing flatter with each loss.

''I had never experienced anything like that first season as a coach at any level,'' Reynolds said. ''And then to turn around and have it happen again in the second year ... you have to shake yourself. You have to find out what the problem is and work harder to get things right.

''I would have hoped things would have been better by the end of the [third season] but we had some issues with the 5/8 [scholarship rule] and some key kids not getting into school right away that would have made a difference. ... I've never, ever been a slow-down coach, but we just didn't have the type of players and skill to play fast those first three seasons. We turned the ball over too much. We didn't have any shooters. We just tried to win as many games as we could by keeping them close and hoping for an opportunity in the end.''

Playing faster last season didn't earn early results (Long Beach State was 6-8 at one point), but it eventually helped produce a seven-game win streak and a final record of 18-12 -- the program's best showing since 2000-01 -- for a team that led the nation in scoring (83.3 ppg).

Better yet, Reynolds' team advanced to the conference tournament final against Pacific and now returns arguably the league's best backcourt in seniors Kejuan Johnson and Aaron Nixon.

What is that loud knocking you here coming from Long Beach? Opportunity.

''I think we're going to be really good, that people in [the Big West] should definitely look out for us,'' said Johnson, a 45 percent 3-point shooter who averaged 11.5 points last season. ''You know, [Reynolds'] job status was something we talked about among teammates going into last year. We really didn't know how long he would be here if we didn't start winning. We just went out and played hard for him and ended up having a good season.

''I think it's important we build off that momentum right away and have a good nonconference record. I think one of the things [last season] did was help us define roles. Our team chemistry will be even better now because of that.''

When the call for more offense came from those above him, Reynolds made his own call. It went to Vance Walberg, then a successful coach at Fresno City College who has since been hired to try to rebuild Pepperdine's program.

Reynolds and Walberg talked about different ways of attacking the basket. Ideas and concepts were shared, and a plan was set in place for Long Beach State to push the ball with abandon and see where it took the 49ers.

The scoring part took right away -- Long Beach scored more than 80 in six of its first 10 games and four times had more than 93 in that span. The winning was more difficult to create.

''We changed the way we played dramatically,'' Reynolds said. ''But the kids hung in there and believed. Now, they have a taste of how it feels to win. They're hungry to keep it going. If we remain injury-free, I think we'll be as good as anybody in our league. Without a doubt, I like the direction we're now heading.''

The life-support machine has been turned off. It seems Reynolds and Long Beach State are again breathing on their own.

Summer indicators

Good sign: Nothing like a sixth-year senior to help a team's cause. UC Santa Barbara should be one of the league's top teams after guard Cecil Brown was granted a sixth season of eligibility in May. Brown missed two full seasons as a result of back, knee and ankle injuries. Last season, the 6-4 Brown averaged 13.1 points and finished second on the Gauchos in 3-pointers made (42) en route to second-team all-conference honors. He will enter the season needing just 256 points to reach 1,000 for his career.

Safe bet: Bobby Brown will be tough to beat out for conference Player of the Year honors. The Cal State Fullerton senior applied for the NBA draft but didn't hire an agent and has returned to school looking to improve on his all-conference numbers (17.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) from last season. Brown -- one of three returning Titans who averaged double-figure scoring in 2005-06 -- has 1,415 career points, well within reach of all-time leader Leon Wood (1,876).

Red flag: Pacific has established itself as the league's premier program, having won NCAA Tournament games in 2004 and '05 before succumbing to Boston College in two overtimes this past March. But the Tigers lose conference Player of the Year Christian Maraker as well as Johnny Gray and Mike Webb, a trio that combined to average 42.9 points of the team's 74.3 points per game last season. Starters Anthony Esparza (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Michael White (7.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg) return, and opportunity exists for several others. But it will take a serious effort for Pacific to make its fourth straight NCAA field.

Worth watching: UC Irvine has one of the league's better frontcourts: forwards Nic Campbell and Patrick Sanders and center Darren Fells, the team's top three rebounders from last season. It's a source of strength that will be needed against a nonconference schedule that includes South Carolina, Oregon, Nevada and DePaul. If the Anteaters can gain some confidence -- and a few upset victories, like their win against Stanford last November -- they could equal or better the 10-4 conference record that earned them second place in the Big West last season.

Things to watch

Cal PolyCal Poly: The Mustangs are big on young guards. They return a pair of all-freshmen selections, Trae Clark (Big West freshman of the year) and Chaz Thomas. The two combined for 143 assists, while Thomas ranked third among conference players in steals (1.45) and Clark averaged just under nine points.

FullertonCal State Fullerton: The program that has posted consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the mid-1980s needs to return to winning close games. Last season, the Titans were 3-6 in those decided by five points or fewer as opposed to 6-0 in games decided by one or two points in 2004-05. Last season, Fullerton was 1-3 in overtime. The previous season, it was 3-0.

CSUN Cal State Northridge: Bobby Braswell's team might be smart to get off to better starts in games. The Matadors last season went 0-14 when trailing at halftime. In addition, they must now replace departed leading scorer Mike Efevberha and his 17.1 average. Northridge is always quick (it has led the conference in steals each of the last five seasons) but needs more toughness (ranked last in rebounding in 2005-06).

Long BeachLong Beach State: As much as you will hear about the tandem of Kejuan Johnson and Aaron Nixon, senior guard Kevin Houston also will play a key role in any 49ers' success. Houston last season led Long Beach in assists (98) and steals (36). He also improved his shooting percentage from 38 percent the previous season to 46 percent last season.

PacificPacific: The Tigers have produced two recent conference Player of the Year winners, point guards Miah Davis and David Doubley. A third could eventually emerge in the coming years in point Steffan Johnson, a sophomore who gained valuable experience last season by coming off the bench in 32 games and averaging 6.3 points and 2.4 assists.

UC IrvineUC Irvine: The Anteaters lost the league's best backcourt (Ross Schraeder and Aaron Fitzgerald) from last season and will now try and replace it with a Top 100 juco signee (Chuma Awaji), a prep school standout (Michael Hunter) and a transfer from Texas A&M (Marcus McIntosh).

UCRUC Riverside: The Highlanders, a weak 5-23 and losers of 18 games by double-digit margins in coach Dave Spencer's first season, are trying to expedite the Division I learning curve with several experienced new faces. Five of the team's seven signees are from the junior college ranks.

UCSBUC Santa Barbara: For junior forward Chris Devine, it's a case of "better late than never." He didn't play a game his first two years in the program (having redshirted, and then he was injured), but he averaged 12.2 points and 5.9 rebounds while starting all 29 games to earn second-team all-conference honors last season. He also led the Big West in shooting at 55.3 percent.

Bracketology

When the NCAA Tournament and Long Beach are together, you know you're in trouble. Resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the 49ers as his early pick to capture the all-Cali Big West and head to the NCAAs.

2007 Bracketology


Standings/Stats

2004-05 Standings
Team League record Overall record
Pacific* 12-2 24-8
UC Irvine 10-4 16-13
Long Beach St. 9-5 18-12
Cal Poly 7-7 10-19
UC Santa Barbara 6-8 15-14
CS Fullerton 5-9 16-13
CS Northridge 4-10 11-17
UC Riverside 3-11 5-23
* NCAA Tournament

Expected leading returning scorers
Player (Team) 2005-06 PPG
Bobby Brown (Fullerton) 17.5
Mike Efevberha (CSUN) 17.1
Aaron Nixon (Long Beach) 14.7
Derek Stockalper (Cal Poly) 12.9
Jonathan Heard (CSUN) 12.3

Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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