The ridiculously difficult road-tour of top-ranked teams is now behind them. However, there are still a few more non-conference games coming up that could be just as important for Long Beach State.
Starting on Thursday, Long Beach State will play in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.
This is the last early-season, eight-team tournament of note, and the only such one not played in the month of November. Other teams to note in this tournament include Xavier, Kansas State, Clemson and Auburn.
For Long Beach State, this is a unique opportunity to stand out among a field that is respectable overall, but does not include a single team that is clearly better than the 49ers. It also provides an opportunity to pick up one or two important resume wins that will come in handy later on.
That includes Xavier, who just so happens to be the first opponent for Long Beach State, on Thursday.
Xavier had previously been unbeaten before getting smashed by Oral Roberts on Sunday in Cincinnati. The loss in and of itself was not particularly surprising—considering the suspensions of star guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons—along with promising freshman Dez Wells. However, the fact that Xavier lost by 22, while barely scratching the 40-point mark, may have been at least a little unsettling, considering Xavier still had five regulars in the lineup.
Xavier will have Holloway back for the game on Thursday, but will not have Lyons back until their second game on Friday. Wells will miss the entire tournament, finishing out his four-game suspension.
With Holloway but not Lyons, Xavier is maybe a borderline Top 25 team. Holloway will have his hands quite full with a Long Beach defense that loves to pressure guards all over the floor.
Without Lyons and Wells to help with that pressure, Holloway is almost certain to get doubled plenty in this game. Holloway is a great scorer and leader for this team, and he can single-handedly lead the Musketeers to wins—see Vanderbilt and Purdue as examples.
Long Beach’s pressure and quickness will pose as tough a challenge to him and to Xavier as any team they’ll see in the Atlantic 10 this year. Because of that, Long Beach State should be considered a slight favorite in this one.
If Long Beach State gets by Xavier, they would face the winner of Auburn-Hawaii in the semifinals. Auburn has been a bit of surprise this season, losing just once thus far. However, the Tigers have not yet faced anyone who stacks up to Long Beach, and it’s hard to see them beating the 49ers should they get past the host school in the first game.
On the other side of the Diamond Head Classic bracket, the best team appears to be Kansas State.
After beating Alabama on Saturday, Kansas State proved they could prevail against a team that applies a lot of pressure on defense. Emerging guards Will Spradling and Angel Rodriguez looked very good in that game, and should only get better through the season. The Wildcats also pose a challenge to the 49ers inside with the physical presences of Thomas Gipson and Jordan Henriquez.
If Long Beach State could beat a team like Kansas State in a tournament championship, on national television (ESPN), it will help ensure that they are still taken seriously throughout the season. While the win at Pittsburgh got everyone’s attention, it was in mid-November—in the season’s infant stages. Since then, Long Beach has lost several close games on the road to excellent competition—San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina.
Watching Long Beach play in these games, they would definitely pass the “eye-test” of an NCAA Tournament team. However, this team could really use a couple more significant wins to back up the Pitt win, and leave little doubt in anyone’s minds that they belong there.
The Big West will provide very little chance for such wins, outside of maybe UC-Santa Barbara.
Beating teams like Xavier and Kansas State on a neutral court would accomplish this objective in a big way for Long Beach State. This is an opportunity that they need to take advantage of, in order to ensure they have the chance to do some major damage in March.