November 23, 2011

Full circle for Monson as 49ers make waves

Bill Koch, National Columnist

It could be argued that last year was the apex of the mid-major revolution in college basketball, with a pair of party crashers invading the Final Four in Houston and Butler making a second straight trip to Monday night’s national championship game.

What the Bulldogs and VCU were doing on that weekend was more than playing for themselves. They were carrying the flag for the leagues who looked at the Big East’s 11 NCAA Tournament bids and wanted to puke, who watched two teams tie Butler in the final Horizon League standings – Cleveland State and Milwaukee – and not earn an invite to The Big Dance and who had to listen to bow-tied Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee condescend to them about the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Last week we were reminded of where the modern version of such a movement began thanks to Dan Monson’s return to the national spotlight. It felt like 1999 all over again when Monson’s Long Beach State team ambushed No. 9 Pittsburgh, 86-76, a flashback to Gonzaga’s rise to prominence during Monson’s two years at the helm.

Monson, as you’ll recall, was the lead Bulldog in Spokane when Gonzaga became destiny’s darling and clawed its way to the West Regional final as a No. 10 seed in 1999, only to lose to eventual national champion Connecticut. It’s hard to believe a dozen years later that the Bulldogs once operated on the game’s fringes, as Mark Few has continued Monson’s work and thrust Gonzaga into the national consciousness on an annual basis. Gritty overachievers like Richie Frahm, Matt Santangelo and Casey Calvary have been replaced by top-100 recruits and a brutal schedule that annually features upwards of six top-25 opponents.

Monson left for what he perceived to be greener pastures after that magical run, signing a seven-year deal to become the head coach at Minnesota. For someone in Monson’s position, it was the right move to make. He’d been in Spokane for 11 seasons, including nine years as an assistant. He had a chance to go to the Big Ten, test his mettle against some of the country’s finest programs and set himself up financially for the rest of his life.

In hindsight, after Monson resigned in 2006 following seven-plus disappointing years, you could say it was the right move to the wrong job. The disastrous academic cheating scandal that Clem Haskins left behind and the reality of competing against heavyweights like Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Indiana proved to be too much to overcome. Monson might have bitten off more than he or anyone else could chew while facing NCAA sanctions and trying to convince the recruits who did visit the Golden Gophers’ St. Paul campus that seeing snow on the ground seven months of the year is a good thing.

Now in his fifth year in the 213 area code, Monson has started building from the ground up yet again. His recent contract extension will keep Monson with the 49ers through the 2015-16 season, and he’ll have the pleasure of watching Casper Ware and the fellas put a serious scare into anyone who has the misfortune to face them in March.

And judging by last week’s carnage, Long Beach State won’t be alone in that regard. A whopping 17 programs from major conferences tasted defeat, including a pair of losses by Arizona State to Pepperdine and New Mexico. The Sun Devils lowlighted a particularly grisly start for the Pac-12, as a third of its teams were downed by programs from smaller conferences.

The Big East and the ACC joined the Pac-12 in sharing the top spot on the dishonor roll, each with four teams of their own dropping games. Holy Cross laid a 22-point beatdown on Boston College on Friday. Saturday brought No. 20 Cincinnati being upset on its home floor by a Presbyterian team that went just 13-18 last season. Sunday featured two more lopsided results, as Creighton humbled in-state foe Iowa by 23 and Iona dropped an 89-63 pasting on Maryland.

And, in a game that didn’t seem much like an upset at all, Gonzaga beat Washington State on Monday night. The fact that the Bulldogs are almost expected to beat the Cougars every season tells you all you need to know about the current state of college basketball. The little guys born 12 years ago on Monson’s watch are all grown up.

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