After Head Coach Dan Monson scheduled one of the toughest series of non-league games in the nation for his Long Beach State squad, one thing was clear: Monson wants to compete with the big boys in March.

Long Beach (6-9 overall, 0-2 conference) faced #8 West Virginia, #2 Texas, #3 Kentucky and #5 Duke, who have a combined record of 52-2 as of the publication of this article. The 49ers also played 11 of their first 14 games away from home.

“The Top 10 is pretty good,” Monson said after losing to Duke 84-63. “Our guys could have caved in and they showed that they’ve been in these games and that they have some fight to them, but we were just outmanned.”

While the team was trounced on the road to a lineup that could potentially be the Final Four, CSULB beat UCLA on Nov. 29 in Anaheim at the 76 Classic tournament — their first win against the Bruins in the history of 49er basketball. They also held their own against Kentucky, leading with 13 minutes to go in the second half before Kentucky pulled out an 86-73 win.

The win over UCLA speaks volumes about Monson’s young team. Two years ago, in Monson’s first season as head coach, Long Beach finished 6-25. Last season, they jumped to second in the Big West and finished the season 15-15. This season, the preseason Big West media poll predicted Long Beach would take the conference championship.

However, the prediction means little in a conference as competitive as the Big West. Long Beach has already lost its first conference game at UC Riverside on Jan. 2, after shooting 48.6 percent from the free throw line and giving up a layup with a second left in overtime to Riverside guard Larry Gurganious. The Highlanders, who were predicted to finish fourth in the media poll, have beaten Long Beach in their last three meetings and could be the team that ruins the 49ers shot at earning a bid to the NCAA tournament.

“[Riverside does] a great job defensively and I think a lot of times guys get to the line and they’re pretty frustrated with the game,” Head Coach Monson said after the loss. “They do a great job of frustrating you and I think it showed at the free throw line. … In a close ball game you have to be able to make them and we weren’t able to do that.”

Although the 49ers lost their leading scorer Donovan Morris, who graduated last year and now plays professional basketball in Hungary, the team returns four starters from last season. Four of the five starters are sophomores with at least two more years of eligibility.

The lone senior in the starting lineup, guard Stephan Gilling, earned honorable mention All-Big West honors last season after scoring 11 points per game and shooting 36.4 percent from behind the arc. This year, Gilling is shooting 43 percent from the three-point line, leading the team with 47 three-pointers and scoring 11.8 points per game. He hit 14 threes in two games this season, including an CSULB record eight against Cal State Monterey Bay at Walter Pyramid on Dec. 12.

Including Gilling, four 49ers have earned Big West Player of the Week honors so far this season.

Sophomore forward T.J. Robinson, who won the award after being named to the All-Tournament Team in the 76 Classic in November, leads the Beach in scoring and rebounding with 16.1 points per game on 53 percent shooting and 10.9 rebounds per game. Sophomore guard Larry Anderson, who earned First Team All-Big West honors in his freshman season, is the Beach’s second-leading scorer with 12.7 points per game. He had 14 points against Duke.

Sophomore point guard Casper Ware was the most recent member of the Beach squad to earn Big West Conference Player of the Week honors after scoring 19 points and dishing out seven assists against Utah State on Dec. 18. He leads the 49ers with 5.6 assists per game.

Long Beach lost its most recent tilt with Fullerton, dropping it to a disappointing 0-2 in conference early on. The 49ers will continue league play vs. UC Irvine at 4:30 on Jan. 9 in their first conference game at Walter Pyramid. The Beach is 3-0 at home this season.