Tackling challenges from the coaching staff head-on. Focusing on getting stops, not steals. Turning the rebound battle from a liability to a strength.
After a 2-6 start in Big West Conference play, the Long Beach State men’s basketball team (10-20, 5-9 Big West) went on a stretch in which it won three of four games through trust and sacrifice.
As March approaches, and with all the uncertainty that remains surrounding the Big West’s eighth and final tournament spot, the Beach needs to get back to what allowed it to be in the race before its latest two-game skid—patient, collective growth.
In addition to a newfound identity revolving around toughness and a league-best interior defense, the on-court trials and tribulations Long Beach has dealt with had shown signs of major improvement.
“It’s been great,” Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson said at a team practice Feb. 25. “This group is way more than a basketball team. It’s a bunch of good guys that like each other and are growing as people throughout the year, as much as they are as a team.”
The brief shift in momentum for the Beach a few weeks ago can perhaps best be attested to a series of team meetings in the midst of its three-game losing skid in early February.
“We were able to be honest and put it all on the table,” junior guard Colin Slater said. “Not necessarily only problems, but what we need from each other personally. Like as people go through things, we’re all college kids adjusting to life too. We made it OK to be like, ‘if something’s going on with one person, speak to your teammates. We’re here for you.’”
Some of the team meetings called for only players, focusing on the importance of facing adversity as a group.
“When things get tough, don’t go shut down,” sophomore guard Chance Hunter said. “Come together. Become stronger as one unit. I just feel like since those meetings, we just became a strong unit together and it shows up on the court now.”
Meeting its keep-it-in-the-60s defensive mark, Long Beach picked up a revenge win over UC Riverside and a season sweep over Hawai’i in the heart of February. Slowing games down to limit turnovers and opponent fast-break opportunities, the Beach’s developing identity had been a well-received adjustment even for Monson, who typically runs a fast-paced offense.
“I kick myself [that] I didn’t go to it earlier because my job is to adjust to our personnel,” Monson said. “I kinda got camouflaged because of our tough preseason schedule, thinking that it was the teams we were playing, not us. It took four or five league games for us to realize what our strengths were, and for our guys to buy into it, especially defensively. We’re going in the right direction and I think our guys have an identity right now, and that’s the most important thing.”
Regardless of the low scores and ugly possessions, the positive results in the standings had no one from the Beach complaining about adapting to the game plan.
“Yeah it’s been difficult, but that’s what we came here for,” Hunter said. “We want to win. We searched for what’s going to help us win this whole season and we finally found it.”
Despite being Long Beach’s leading scorer at 14.3 ppg (sixth in the Big West), Hunter had also been one of the biggest proponents of the team’s evolving defensive identity, highlighted by one of basketball’s most polarizing in-game gestures—slapping the floor to start off opposing possessions.
“I feel like it sets the tone,” Hunter said. “It lets teams know regardless of what’s going on on offense, we’re going to play defense night in and night out. That’s just what they’re going to have to expect. We’re just going to be tough and dog-like on defense.”
First becoming a staple in the Beach’s 55-52 road victory at the Thunderdome against UC Santa Barbara on Jan. 11, the team often ramps up the intensity with floor slaps on the less glamorous end.
Crediting the idea to assistant coach Bobby Braswell, Slater said he too once felt like the choreographed floor smack was a bit offbeat.
“We thought it was kind of funny at first,” Slater said. “We’ve seen other people do it like Duke [University]. Way back in the day they would do it. We just ran with it and it kept going.”
With two games left before the dust settles from the Big West hoops earthquake, Long Beach will have to take it one tip-off at a time and get back to the mindset and execution that has given it a chance at the postseason.
“We got here digging ourselves out of a hole just worrying about ourselves and worrying about the next game,” Monson said. “That can’t change. We gotta handle now a little bit of success for the first time in our season. … It’s going to take just as much work, and we gotta get right back to the same mentality we’ve had the last couple weeks.”
Long Beach will host Cal Poly at the Walter Pyramid on Thursday, March 5, at 7 p.m.