Every year, early March is like a new season for college basketball teams aspiring to make the NCAA Tournament. Whether it’s a team in a power conference like the ACC or a team in a one-bid league like the Big West, everyone wants to make it to the big dance.
Luckily, the Long Beach State men’s basketball team caught fire at the end of conference play and is riding a five-game winning streak heading into the postseason. Energy is high and the belief that they can take out any team is there for the 49ers (14-18, 8-8 Big West).
In its first game of the Big West Conference tournament, Long Beach takes on Hawai’i Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The Rainbow Warriors are riding a two-game winning streak of their own, defeating both UC Davis and Fullerton on the road.
Long Beach hasn’t had success against Hawai’i this season, falling with losses by 17 points and seven points in the span of a week. More specifically, the 49ers have struggled to contain Hawai’i senior point guard Brocke Stepteau, who averaged 19.5 points per game in the two matchups.
“Defensively we’ve just got to be more of the aggressor,” head coach Dan Monson said. “We got lit up on ball screens and let their point guards get in the paint and they just wreaked havoc with us. It’s a fine line, we’ve got to be more disruptive on the perimeter but we’ve also got to do a better job of keeping it out of the paint.”
The 49ers’ mixed focus has to do with Hawai’i senior forward Jack Purchase, a second team All Big West selection this season. Purchase averages 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in conference play, providing the Rainbow Warriors with a mix of three point shooting and interior scoring.
“We’re focused on locking in defensively, transition, no paint [touches], contain and contest is what we talk about every day,” redshirt senior forward Temidayo Yussuf said. “We’re looking mostly at those things because those are what made us successful these last five games.”
The defensive focus from Long Beach is a result of the team being one of the best offensively in the Big West. The 49ers average 76 points per game, first in the conference. Senior point guard Deishuan Booker and redshirt senior guard Bryan Alberts averaged 23 points per game and 10 points per game in Big West play respectively.
In the Feb. 7 matchup between the 49ers and Rainbow Warriors, Booker shot zero free throws. Free throws have been a key to the team’s success. Booker averages 9.5 per game and is currently tied for second in the nation in free throws made with 238.
“We know offensively we’re fine, make smart decisions and have Dei Dei [Deishuan Booker] control the pace of the game. We should win on that end of the floor,” Yussuf said. “Our biggest problem is defense, if we play defense as a whole unit, being on the same page and having communication we should be successful.”
With a Long Beach win over Hawai’i, the 49ers would advance to the Big West quarterfinals Friday at the Honda Center. The time and opponent are TBD.