When the Long Beach State 49ers take to their home court this Friday, you may be able to feel the shockwave from the Queen Mary.
You’ll hear the roar of a record crowd increased by an additional 2,600 temporary seats, their excitement over hosting the No. 12 North Carolina Tar Heels, and their ecstasy in witnessing a seismic shift forward in the progression of the Long Beach State basketball program.
It may not have always been pretty, and the road ahead isn’t going to be easy, but this is the pot of gold that Long Beach fans have held steadfast in their faith since head coach Dan Monson came to town in 2007.
After a 25-9 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance last season, the 49ers are now a bonafide draw, and one of the most intriguing mid-major programs in the nation. Quality opponents are more willing than ever to scribble an LB into their season schedules, and that means greater revenue and more fruitful recruiting down the line.
“[Monson] has the kind of program that people want to help,” says Long Beach State athletic director Vic Cegles.
To be a top program, you need to beat top programs, and they don’t come any bigger than UNC. The Tar Heels are the third-winningest school ever, NCAA champions in 2005 and 2009, coached by mastermind Roy Williams. Every school wants to be North Carolina, and every school wants to beat North Carolina. Long Beach State will have their chance this Friday, but it took a lot of work to make it possible.
The college coaching fraternity is a tight-knit community, and Monson and Williams have known each other for about twenty years through conferences and coaching trips sponsored by Nike. When North Carolina signed top prospects David and Travis Wear out of Orange County a few years ago, Monson knew that the Tar Heels often try to schedule games near home for their seniors, and saw an opportunity.
Williams liked the idea of playing at Long Beach, and in May 2010 both sides agreed to the deal in principle. They worked out a couple of details – “As long as Dan is still there,” Williams reportedly said – and Williams told Monson that the official paperwork would be mailed within the week, and the game would be officially scheduled.
Not three days later, however, the Wear twins transferred out of North Carolina.
“I went to [Cegles] and said I think we probably lost that game,” Monson remembers.
But then something crazy happened: A few weeks later, the paperwork showed up anyway. Perplexed, Monson called Williams to find out if he was still interested.
“If I don't play that game, I’ll be doing the same thing to Long Beach State that these kids are doing to our programs,” Williams said to Monson. “Two wrongs don't make a right and we’ll come back and play.”
The game was on, and while for North Carolina it may just be a matter of principle, or a warm-up stop on their way to the Maui Invitational next week, for Long Beach State this is the basketball equivalent of landing on the moon. Cegles and his department immediately kicked into overdrive and prepared to host the biggest game in decades.
They considered moving the game to a larger venue, but fan support at the Pyramid has been an important part of their success in recent years and they wanted to prove the community is capable of hosting big-time games. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to round up some support (and funding) to build permanent seating expansions. The 49ers had their first taste of action in the enhanced Pyramid during a 75-65 win over North Alabama last weekend.
“That was a great atmosphere,” Monson says. “I felt like it was more of a big-time atmosphere; a closed in, more electric homecourt advantage.”
Against the Tar Heels, the 49ers could use a shot of that extra electricity. Long Beach State didn’t look particularly ready in their victory over a D-II team, leading junior Kris Gulley to say, “We really see now, from a game, that we've been practicing a little too casual.” Following a Monday afternoon practice, Monson said that his players are starting to assert themselves as leaders but there is still a lack of urgency. With a team full of young players that need to address basic issues, Monson worries they haven’t grasped the gravity of the North Carolina game.
“They're going to realize it and it’s going to be too late,” he said. “We've got to be ready for the challenge.”
This season, “ready” is relative. Long Beach is still finding cohesion as a team, still dealing with transfers that have uncertain eligibility status, still figuring out lineups as freshman point guard Branford Jones broke his tibia in the North Alabama game and will miss 8-12 weeks. Hosting a team of North Carolina caliber is, indeed, a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the players, the basketball program and the 49er faithful – but is it realistic to expect anyone to really be ready for a game of that magnitude?
Long Beach State is already scheduled to host both USC and Creighton next season, among others, and as the 49er RPI rises, so too does their national notoriety. Proving that the Pyramid can host games of this level bodes extremely well for the future. Hell, can you imagine what will happen if Long Beach State wins?
Turns out that scheduling the game may have been the easy part, after all.