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Well Qualified to Represent the LBC

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While all the college hoops fans in Southern California were only paying attention to those teams up in Westwood and downtown, down in the LBC they’ve been playing some pretty good basketball too. NCAA tournament good.

Playing fast and bombing threes, Long Beach State won the Big West Conference tournament, which means they get to go dancing for the first time in a dozen years, They go in as a 12 seed facing five-seed Tennessee (Friday, 11:45 on CBS 2) — a great spot because every year one or two 12 seeds pull the upset (and screw up office pools everywhere).

And this is exactly the kind of team that sneaks up on tourney watchers (and opposing coaches fear) in the NCAA tournament — they start five seniors; they play an aggressive, gambling style of defense; they play three guards at the same time and try to play a Phoenix Suns style of “small ball” that can throw teams off their games; and they can hit the three. Lots of them.

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Which means this team is a lot of fun to watch – a more exciting brand of basketball than the teams that get all the press in town.

If you watched the Big West Championship game last weekend you got a good example of what the fearless 49ers can do on offense. Aaron Nixon averages 18.6 points per game (although that has been about 21 of late and was 29 in the Big West title game) and you can count on him shooting from two steps behind the NBA three-point line about three times a game. And he'll drain it – he’s shooting 39% from three for the season.

But what makes the 49ers (24-7) dangerous is they start two other guards who can hit the three, plus one forward who plays like a guard. Kevin Houston is the point guard, shoots 42% from three and is averaging 11.7 per game. Kejuan Johnson is the third guard and he is shooting 37% from three and is averaging 15.3 per game. Then there is Sterling Byrd, the forward who shoots 36% from three and is scoring 14 per game.

Even coming off the bench are seniors who can score - in the Big West title game Mark Dawson came out of nowhere to score 12, pull down 10 boards, make some key defensive plays and throw down maybe the most spectacular dunk in school history (on an ally-oop from Houston).

Probably nobody was happier to reach the NCAA tournament than 49er head coach Larry Reynolds, who basically had to do that to save his job. In the fifth year of a five-year deal (of which the first three years the team was horrible), Reynolds was leading a program that was both losing and losing money. And there is a new Athletic Director at Long Beach State rumored to be looking to make a change. But the team turned it around a little last year, earning Reynolds a reprieve from the ax, and this year's senior-heavy squad met and exceeded expectations.

What would really exceed expectations would be a first-round win. And if Tennessee is looking past Long Beach, before they know what hit them a storm of threes could send them home. And Long Beach will be the toast of the tourney and the curse of many an office pool.

AP Photo by Mark Avery