THE ROAD TO NEW ORLEANS
NO. 12 SEED WEST REGION RPI 39
Dan Monson was coaching Gonzaga in 1999, fresh off an Elite Eight appearance that would permanently put the Bulldogs on the map, and he was living in Spokane, the city in which he was born. Life seemed perfect. Then he was offered the job at Minnesota, a Big Ten school reeling from one of the worst academic-fraud scandals in NCAA history. "I turned it down five times, but they just kept offering more money, kept taking away the obstacles," Monson says. "I was in my hotel room [in Minneapolis] and looking in the mirror, and I said to myself, Maybe this is happening for a reason."
Monson accepted the Gophers' job, but three years later he was offered the chance to coach Washington. This was different: a program close to home that had always been high on his list of dream jobs. Monson, though, still had six years left on his deal with Minnesota, and felt uneasy about abandoning the players he had recruited to rebuild the program. So over the next five seasons he struggled to revive the Gophers, reaching a single NCAA tournament, in 2005, while Lorenzo Romar quickly turned the Huskies around. Friends comforted Monson by suggesting that a grander purpose would reveal itself. Everything happens for a reason.
Those were the very words that Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi used in November 2006, seven games into the season, to explain his decision to part ways with Monson, who resigned under pressure. For the next four months, as Monson scrambled to find work and was passed over for other coaching jobs, there was that phrase again, repeated so often by people Monson knew that he could anticipate it. "Please don't say it," he'd plead. "Say anything else!"
Sitting in his office two weeks ago, Monson, now the coach at Long Beach State, is again confronted with that irksome platitude. The 12th-seeded 49ers (25--8), who play New Mexico in Portland on Thursday, are one of the nation's most dangerous potential bracket busters. The Big West Conference champions defeated Xavier, Auburn and Pittsburgh this season, took San Diego State to overtime and hung in with Kansas and North Carolina on the road. In fact the 49ers, who have four senior starters and are led by undersized point guard Casper Ware, have much in common with Monson's 1999 Gonzaga team. Given how reluctant Monson was to take the Long Beach job and how poor a fit he thought the school and the city were for his coaching style and his family, he is at least open to reevaluating his notions of fate. "You do start to wonder," he admits. "Maybe this is where I was meant to be."
Where Monson apparently was meant to be very much resembles the place where he started. The blueprint he has followed in building the 49ers mirrors that of his Gonzaga tenure. Most of the 1999 Zags hailed from the Pacific Northwest, and the team's core had arrived as freshmen and developed as a unit. The fulcrum was a tiny point guard, 5'8" Quentin Hall.
Long Beach State has nine Southern Californians on its roster, and Monson's first recruiting class included four high school players who would become the heart of this year's team, including the 5'10" Ware, the two-time Big West Player of the Year and the team leader in scoring (16.9) and assists (3.0). Coming out of Gahr High in Cerritos, Ware was too short to draw interest from the then Pac-10, but "Casper reminds me of Quentin [Hall]," Monson says. "Height is the most overrated quality in a point guard."
Joining Ware in that freshman class was 6'7" forward Eugene Phelps, from Woodland Hills, Calif., who was lightly recruited because, Monson says, "I don't think a lot of coaches knew where they could play him." Then there was Larry Anderson from Long Beach, a shooting guard "who couldn't really shoot in high school," the coach says. Finally there was T.J. Robinson, the only non-Californian (West Haven, Conn.) in the starting five, a power forward who, in Monson's words, "is just unorthodox. He's lefthanded, and he's only got two moves: left and more left."
That group won 15 games as freshmen, 17 as sophomores and 22 last year, when they won the Big West regular-season title. "It helped coming in together because when you are losing, you don't think about transferring," says Ware. "You think about sticking together and turning it around."