Searching for their first NCAA Tournament win since 1973, the Long Beach State 49ers begin play in the second round of the 74th annual event against the New Mexico Lobos at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon this afternoon.
Long Beach State, which claims to have played the toughest non-conference schedule of any team in college basketball thanks to eight games against teams that are in the tournament field, is the 12th seed in the West Region and is participating in the event for the first time since 2007 when it was blown out of the water by Tennessee (121-86).
Despite losing the final game of the regular season to Cal State Fullerton, the 49ers easily took care of business in the Big West Conference Tournament, registering double-digit wins over the likes of UC Davis, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara in order to earn the automatic bid to the tourney.
As for the fifth-seeded Lobos, they seemed to be hiding in the shadows cast by San Diego State and UNLV in the Mountain West Conference, but when it counted the most UNM came up huge. Following back-to-back road losses to Colorado State and TCU, the Lobos rattled off a couple wins to close out the regular season, and then delivered three straight victories over the Air Force Falcons, Runnin' Rebels and Aztecs in order to capture the MWC Tournament title for the first time since 2005.
In terms of experience in the NCAA Tournament, the Lobos first showed up in 1968 with a win over Santa Clara in Albuquerque, but since that triumph the program has won just six of 19 opportunities. Two years ago, seeded third in the East Regional, UNM topped Montana (57-62) but then bowed to 11th-seeded Washington (82-64) in a stunner.
The all-time series between these two teams favors the Lobos by a count of 3-2, with UNM winning two in a row thanks to a 92-88 overtime triumph in the most recent matchup back in 1986.
The winner of this meeting will take on the survivor of the Davidson/Louisville matchup in the next round on Saturday.
For the second straight season, Casper Ware was named the Big West Conference Player of the Year, this time around leading the 49ers to the Big Dance after pushing them through the conference tournament. The Big West Tournament MVP as well, Ware averaged 22.0 ppg in those three bouts, topping out at 33 against UCSB in the title game when he tied a school record with eight three-pointers. Through 33 games, Ware has knocked down a total of 92 triples, the rest of the team combining for just 125 more conversions from long distance. Ware leads the team in scoring with 17.4 ppg and is also first in assists with 108, while Larry Anderson is listed as the second-leading scorer with 14.0 ppg, although the latter's status is still a bit shaky as he continues to nurse a sprained right knee. If Anderson can't go, that will put a little more pressure on T.J. Robinson (12.0 ppg) who is already the top rebounder for the group with 10.1 boards per game.
Clamping down on defense has been the objective of every Lobos team in every game since Steve Alford took over as head coach. This year the squad was able to limit the competition to a mere 59.1 ppg, those teams shooting just 38.0 percent from the field and 30.7 percent behind the three-point line. Under the direction of coach Alford, the Lobos are an astounding 58-0 when holding opponents below 60 points, so as long as the team can continue that trend good things are bound to happen. Drew Gordon, who lost out on the MWC Player of the Year Award, did grab a trophy as the MWC Tournament MVP and has also been recognized as an All-MWC First Team member as well. Gordon was a double-double machine for the Lobos with 13.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, both of which led the team this season. Kendall Williams (12.0 ppg) accounted for a team-best 132 assists and Tony Snell (11.0 ppg) was a guiding force from three-point range (71-of-178).