BracketBusters is a college basketball contrivance of ESPN, something to break up the parochial monotony of conference rematches, programming to bridge the gaps from Rivalry Week to Championship Week to Vitale’s Head Explodes Week.
In the fall, the Worldwide Leader pools 98 midmajor teams, then announces 11 games matching the best of them to be televised the third Saturday of February. For the other 76 teams, well, there’s a lovely consolation prize – a non-TV game of dubious relevance.
For the Long Beach State 49ers, where former Gonzaga head coach Dan Monson now works, it means a long and scenic trip to Moscow and a Saturday evening date with his alma mater, the University of Idaho – where father Don’s tenure more than two decades ago remains the defining era of Vandals basketball. To tangle the web further, Idaho’s senior point guard, Mac Hopson, is the son of Phil, one of the iron men on Don Monson’s two NCAA tournament teams at UI.
Hey, at least there’s a charming subtext. So somebody was thinking, right?
“I hate this game,” grumped Don. “There’s nothing I like about it.”
So he’s taking one out of the Archie Manning playbook.
“Somebody said, ‘What colors are you wearing?’ ” reported Don, himself an Idaho alum. “Well, I root for my kid – and if you don’t understand that, you’ve never had kids.”
Of course, he didn’t like it much better back when Dan was on the Gonzaga staff for 11 years, the last two as head coach, and the Vandals and Zags sometimes played twice a season. Dan didn’t always like it either.
“We lost down there my first year as head coach,” he recalled. “I remember Quentin Hall had to hold me back after a call or something.”
But the next year he used the occasion of the return date in Spokane to propose to his wife, Darci.
So most of the angst seems to be piled on Don – and of course, his wife, Deanna, who after enduring her husband’s 35-year coaching career is now in year 22 of tracking Dan, if mostly by cell phone and Internet.
This one has been as curious as any.
Taking over a 49ers program in 2007 with virtually no returning point producers, Monson goosed Long Beach from six victories to a 15-15 finish a year ago, with more gains expected this year.
But the 49ers are 12-14 after absorbing a 22-point pasting at home from Pacific on Wednesday night.
“It’s been a frustrating team,” Monson admitted. “We have decent individual personnel, but not great. But in the history of the Big West, even when UNLV had 3-4 pros on those teams with Larry Johnson and Stacy Augmon, no teams ever had as many conference players of the week as we’ve had.
“All five of our starters have been player of the week sometime this season, and there’s no other school with more than one guy. And yet we’re a .500 team, basically. We’re better individually than we are as a team, and that’s disheartening as a coach because it’s your job to get them to be cohesive.”
As he began to do at Gonzaga – and his successor, Mark Few, has accelerated – Monson is taking his nonconference scheduling to chancier levels.
This season, the 49ers played Notre Dame, West Virginia, Clemson, UCLA, Texas, Utah State, Kentucky and Duke – winning only two of them. Heading into Big West play, they had the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country – and a 6-7 record.
“Then we lost on the road in overtime to UC Riverside, and lost another one to Fullerton and lost some confidence with it,” he said. “It took us a while to get out of it and we’re playing better, but not good enough. We’ve had four one-possession games and three more go into overtime, and we just haven’t been good enough in enough of those.”
Actually, things were even more harrowing a year ago. Monson said 16 of the 49ers’ 30 games were one-possession affairs.
“In that respect, the nonconference schedule this year hurt us,” he said. “We were either winning by 10-12 or losing by that much or more. Our win over Loyola was the only real close one and we just hadn’t been in any tight games.”
But that’s coaching. The thrills – Gonzaga’s magical Elite Eight run in 1999, or his dad’s amazing rebuild at Idaho – generate stories for the ages, but seasons of scuffling a little above or a little below .500 test both character and culture. When Dan first expressed an interest in coaching, his father wanted to make sure he was doing it for his own reasons and not because it was the family thing to do. Neither would have known that answer if they hadn’t forged an uncommonly close relationship – which didn’t start with coaching.
It started in a boat.
“Get a boat,” Don advised. “We’re up there at Priest Lake all those years, out at 6, 7, 8 in the morning fishing. We’d start talking about stuff and they’ve got to talk to you. You’re in an 18-foot boat. After 18 feet, all they can do is jump in the lake.”
That might have been Dan’s suggestion when he saw the BracketBusters pairing. The trip to Moscow will include a two-hour layover in Portland and the bus ride from Spokane to Moscow, and then a 6 a.m. flight the next morning back home.
“But it’s a good thing for midmajors,” he reasoned. “Last year we had an ESPNU game against Green Bay. Everybody at this level needs all the exposure they can get.”
Even if it comes at his dad’s expense.
“The rest of the family is excited,” Dan reported. “I think they’ll use all of our 50 tickets – none of our players seem to have a high demand for tickets in Moscow, for some reason. So I think Darci’s family will have enough to get in.”
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