As far as Long Beach State men’s basketball goes, for the most part no one expected this strong of a start to Big West conference play. From Long Beach fans posting to online community message boards to the Daily 49er sports staff, Long Beach (8-11, 2-1 Big West) has been a pleasant surprise for many, just one week into conference play.
Long Beach started its Big West journey with a home win over last year’s regular season conference champion, UC Davis 82-77. The result was impressive since the 49ers placed fifth in the standings last year. UC Davis also has the reigning conference player of the year in TJ Shorts II.
Long Beach followed the win over Davis with an upset win on the road over UC Irvine 80-70. The Anteaters are the clear-cut favorite to win the Big West this year, and Long Beach went into the Bren Center and stunned them. After the game, the team surprised head coach Dan Monson in the locker room and showered him with water in a post-game celebration. On Saturday, Long Beach dropped a game in overtime to Cal State Fullerton 92-90.
A dazzling statistic from Long Beach’s first conference game was how many times the 49ers got to the free-throw line. Led by senior point guard Deishuan Booker’s 19-for-20 shooting from the stripe, the team shot 42 total free-throws compared to UC Davis’ 14 attempts.
A crucial part of the 49ers’ early Big West success has been Booker and the team’s ability to draw fouls. Long Beach has 95 total free-throw attempts to its opponent’s 57. When your leading scorer is also tied for 20th in the nation in free-throw percentage (89.4 percent), it’s a sign that the team should continue attacking the paint.
If Long Beach can continue getting to the line significantly more than its opponents, the 49ers have a shot at being a top three team in the conference. Even more, they will have a legitimate shot at contending for a Big West tournament championship if Booker continues scoring at a torrid pace.
Part of the 49ers’ steady improvement from the preseason until now has been at the hands of Booker. The Las Vegas native is currently averaging 31 points, four assists and four steals in Big West play. From clutch three pointers to key defensive stops, this team currently goes as far as Booker goes. Even though Booker has been the heartbeat of this team, senior forward KJ Byers and sophomore Drew Cobb have brought much needed energy on both ends of the floor. Senior forward Mason Riggins has stepped up in the post, grabbing eight rebounds per game since the departure of redshirt senior forward Temidayo Yussuf.
Yussuf played a major role on this team throughout the pre-season, averaging 13 points and seven rebounds per game, but has not played since Dec. 29 due to knee soreness. Without Yussuf the 49ers have played at a faster pace, and less of an “inside-out” brand of basketball. Yussuf is the team’s most physical presence, and Long Beach has had to adjust its use of big men. The 49ers have utilized more high-post entries to Riggins and Byers through pick and rolls and other set plays.
When Yussuf returns, Long Beach will become even more dangerous. Booker, Yussuf and the rest of the 49ers have already proven they can hang with some of the top teams in the Big West. While it’s been quite the surprise, conference play is always a toss-up as to what team will take the title.
This week will tell a lot about the current state of the 49ers, with a road matchup at Cal State Northridge and a home game against UC Santa Barbara. If they come out 2-0 over the Matadors and Gauchos, the 49ers will be a legitimate threat. For now, let’s enjoy what a surprise Booker and Long Beach have been.