Although it has never been proven that experience alone can win games, the Long Beach men’s basketball team may very well put that theory to the test this season.
Featuring nine seniors, and coming off a season in which it won seven of their last eight games to reach the final of the Big West tournament, the Long Beach men’s basketball team (11-4 overall, 2-0 in the Big West) is one of the most popular choices to win the conference title this season. Picked in the preseason to take the Big West crown by both the coaches and media, the 49ers will have to contend not only with their conference rivals, but also their own great expectations.
“Naturally there’s a lot of pressure to live up to those expectations,” Head Coach Larry Reynolds, now in his fifth year with the team, said. “I think our guys are anxious to prove that they are one of the best teams in the conference and sometimes that makes you try a little too hard. I think that they were doing that early on in the season, but I think we’ve righted that ship and we’re definitely improving.”
Long Beach will be building off of a successful 2005-2006 season in which they finished third in the Big West with an 18-12 overall record and a 9-5 record in conference play. A five-game winning streak at the end of the season propelled the 49ers to a great postseason run, in which they defeated both Fullerton and Irvine but later fell to Pacific 70-78 in the title game. After getting a taste of what it takes to make it to the final game, Long Beach will be motivated to claim the title it so narrowly missed last season.
“Our expectations are high after getting to the finals of the Big West championship and we want to improve upon what we did last year, seeing as how we are one year more experienced,” Reynolds said. “I’m sure the team would like to get back to have a shot at the championship, but that all takes a lot of work and a lot of luck and a lot of wins. That run last year gave us the confidence to know we can get there and compete with the best teams in the conference.”
Last season, the 49ers were an offensive juggernaut, leading the nation in scoring at 83.3 points per game at 45 percent from the field and attempting nearly 24 three-point field goals per game. The team has cooled off somewhat this season, averaging 73.7 points per game and shooting just 40 percent in the preseason. With much of the same versatility on offense as last season’s squad, Long Beach has approached this season with a greater emphasis on defense.
“We definitely wanted to be a better defensive team than last year,” Reynolds said. “Up to this point we haven’t really shot the ball as well as we did last season, but we have become a much better defensive team and I think a lot of that has to do with experience and focus.”
The 49ers will have to compensate for the loss of two All-Conference selections that added to their explosive offense: First Team All-Big West guard Jibril Hodges, who wrapped a stellar career as the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter, and Second Team selection Shawn Hawkins, who averaged 13.1 points per game in his senior season.
Long Beach returns another Second Team selection, senior guard Kejuan Johnson, as well as its leading scorer from last season, senior guard Aaron Nixon who turned heads in the Big West tournament by recording an outstanding 25.3 points per game. Along with senior guard Kevin Houston, Johnson and Nixon arguably make up the most dangerous backcourt in the conference.
“The biggest thing is that [the backcourt] creates matchup problems for the other team,” Reynolds said. “You know those guys are going to bring it night in and night out and when they do that it kind of lifts everyone else up.”
Long Beach finished the preseason with a 9-4 record, with two of its losses coming to nationally ranked opponents. The 49ers dropped a one-point contest to #16 Air Force 69-68 and were defeated handily by #1 UCLA 88-58. After losing three straight matches, starting the year at 2-4, Long Beach ran off seven straight wins to wrap up the preseason before annihilating Big West title contender Santa Barbara 101-65 at home on Jan. 4.
The 49ers’ win streak extended to nine on Jan. 6 with a narrow 77-70 victory over Cal Poly, a contest in which Long Beach allowed the Mustangs to sink 44.8 percent of its shots, while only managing to make 37.3 percent of its own buckets. Part of the reason why Long Beach was able to hang on to the win lies in Johnson’s performance on the night, when he carried the team and shot a career-high 26 points. Houston – the second-best offensive power on the night – made 12 fewer points than Johnson.
In order to maintain a high level of play in search of the Big West Conference title, Long Beach cannot afford to play down to lesser opponents; it has to come out shooting every night.
The conference season could mean a test for Reynolds’ veteran club every time it takes the floor. The key for Long Beach will be to keep its previous successes and lofty expectations from going to the players’ heads.
“With conference play starting I think everything has to go out the window as far as feeling good about yourself up to this point,” Reynolds said. “Teams are going to be very hungry and very focused and it’s going to be a challenge to stay as hungry and as focused as you need to until March.”