Thursday, November 17, 2011

Long Beach State 86, Pittsburgh 76

[recap] [box score]

The college basketball season's not yet two weeks old, but I guarantee that you won't see a more impressive non-conference win all season than Long Beach State's victory at Pittsburgh.

A bigger upset? Sure. A few have already happened. But a more impressive one? No chance.

How can I be so sure? Because I can't point to a game remaining on any schedule which would be more impressive.

Sure, Maine could go into the XL Center Thursday night and beat the defending national champions. There are a huge number of games over the course of the season where that could happen. But they would be flukes, one-offs, the product of the favorite not taking the underdog seriously.

Pittsburgh was plenty aware of Long Beach State. The 49ers have received a few votes for the top 25. They went 14-2 in the Big West last season, before getting upset by UC-Santa Barbara in the conference championship and having to settle for an NIT bid.

Yes, Pitt knew all about Long Beach. And yet Dan Monson's crew went into the Petersen Events Center -- the same building in which Pitt had lost to exactly one non-conference opponent since it opened in 2002 -- and kicked their asses. The Pitt team that returned three starters from the team that earned a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament. Kicked. Their. Asses.

The biggest reason Pitt knew about Long Beach before tonight was, of course, Casper Ware, the 5'10" senior point guard. I was vibrating with excitement several hours before tip-off for a chance to see him. And boy, did the kid deliver.

The first half was his most impressive offensively:
* His first basket was a step-back three-pointer from well beyond NBA range with Tray "Don't Call Me Travon" Woodall draped all over him -- as close to an impossible shot as you'll see someone take in the normal flow of the game.
* His second was another three, which he drained after expertly using a screen to get open on the left wing.
* His third was was a layup that came on a sweet backdoor cut, with Ware banking the ball off the glass while absorbing a bunch of contact that went unwhistled.
* His fourth was a standstill three from deep in the right corner over Cameron Wright, a freshman half a foot taller than Ware who made the rookie mistake of not believing Ware would dare shoot in such a situation.
* His fifth was a drive and another layup while being fouled. He got the and 1 this time and, of course, converted.

It wasn't just his shooting or scoring. He made at least three great passes in the first half. One on fast break, he flew up court, jumped in the air while faking and looking left, then fired it right to a streaking teammate. On another, he picked up his dribble just inside the free throw line, switched the ball from his left hand to his right, then quickly flipped it back in the direction it came for another layup.

As time on his brilliant first half expired, Ware drove left, got bumped (no call), and threw up a soft 20-footer while falling backwards that rolled around before eventually crawling out, even the ball not believe that Ware could be that good.

Pitt went to a 2-3 zone early in the second half and it took away some of Ware's rhythm. He still finished with a career-high 28 points on 10-for-18 shooting (4-for-11 from deep) despite being the focus of the Pittsburgh defense.

I was so focused on Ware (can you tell?) that I sort of ignored the other guys on the court. It doesn't help that that they all look about 6'6" and are both rail-thin and impossibly long.

James Ennis was the most impressive of the supporting cast, perhaps having a bigger impact on the game than even Ware. The juco transfer had 19 points, six assists, four boards, and five steals -- disrupting Pittsburgh's offense at the top of a 1-2-2 zone the 49ers played for the bulk of the second half. Larry Anderson posted a 12/3/7 line, and 6'8" T.J. Robinson chipped in with 11 points and a game-high eight boards.

There are all sorts of numbers to throw around. 58: The length of Pitt's non-conference home winning streak. 59.3: LBSU's shooting percentage for the game. 24: The number of assists the 49ers tallied -- on 32 baskets, a great percentage for a college team.

But numbers cannot fully describe how good Long Beach was on this night. Many will write it off as just another experienced mid-major knocking off a power conference team adjusting to a few new players. But trust me, it wasn't. It was a lot more impressive than that.

I have even more to say about Long Beach State, including possibly my first bold prediction of the season, but I'm going to give myself the rest of the week to cool off and make sure I'm thinking clearly. But these guys can definitely play.

Pittsburgh notes: The only vivid memory I have of Nasir Robinson is that of him committing the worst foul in NCAA history at the tail end of Pitt's Sweet 16 exit against Butler last season. But I'm pretty sure that last year's version of Robinson didn't make a lot of spinning bank shots. I'm pretty sure that last year's version of Robinson didn't do a lot of upfaking from 15 feet with the shotclock ticking down, then driving left for a layup. I'm pretty sure that last year's version of Robinson didn't drive and then drop a pass to a cutting teammate too often. But this year's Robinson did all that, and more, in this one. He also did some Nasir Robinson-type things like rebound and finish strong ... Unfortunately, he also did one other Nasir Robinson-type thing by shooting a finger roll straight up in the air. Dane Fife from Indiana is the only other player I remember seeing airball a finger roll in game action ... Woodall shot well but had five turnovers, including a big one in transition down ten late in the second that led to a Ware layup ... There's a difference between being assertive on offense and taking a lot of shots. Ashton Gibbs took 21 shots (making eight), but he wasn't assertive the way Pitt needs him to be.

Long Beach State notes: Ware, Ennis, Robinson, and Anderson played the majority of the minutes (39, 36, 35, and 33 respectively) and did most of the heavy lifting, but even the 49er role players got into the act with key plays. Midway through the second half, Pitt had a couple three-point possessions and cut the lead to six. The 2-3 was giving LBSU trouble and Dan Monson called a timeout. On the ensuing possession, Edis Dervisevic, a 6'8", 245-pound senior who averaged 2.1 ppg last year, penetrated the zone from the left wing and tossed in an awkard-looking ten-footer. Ennis followed with a steal and dunk and order was restored ... Later, with just over three minutes to go and Pitt making its final surge, starting center Eugene Phelps, who stands just 6'6", scored on an up and under to make the lead 77-65 ... I've covered most of the Ware scouting report: Great shooter, terrific off the dribble, can finish through contact, excellent passer, jet quick, good vertical leap. The one component I have a question about is his defense. He has a reputation as a good defender and there was nothing about his defensive fundamentals that were alarming -- he just might be too damn small. Woodall and Gibbs each hit threes simply by shooting over him. Ware checked Woodall most of the time LBSU was in man-to-man, but he did pick up an early foul trying to guard Gibbs off the dribble ... At one point early in the second half, an official handed the ball to Anderson to inbound at midcourt, and Anderson simply dribbled the ball inbounds, which is a turnover. It made me wonder whether LBSU had a drill or something that involves walking the ball in. I mean, you gotta pass it in even in pickup games.

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