PUB WISDOM

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The Beach’s New Riverside Reality

Last-second Larry puts the Niners on ice.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, UC Riverside served as punching bag for the rest of the Big West conference, a walkover, a laughing stock. And Long Beach State, the program with arguably the best historical pedigree among Big West squads, was laughing right along with the rest. Honestly, who could blame them?

That was then. Now? Not so much.

Three up, three down — that’s Long Beach State’s new Riverside reality. The 49ers are Oh! for their last three against UCR, including  a Highlander home-and-away sweep last season and Riverside’s home squeaker on Saturday, a 69-67 overtime win.

Yeah, yeah, if the Niners had managed to shoot more than 60% from the charity stripe, they would’ve won easily. But guess what? They didn’t. Long Beach coach Dan Monson, no slouch when it comes to basketball insights, seems to think that the Wooldridge brand of hard-nosed play was so frustrating for his team that they had trouble settling down enough to convert at the free-throw line.

So it seems the Niners  — and the rest of the league — better adjust to the new Riverside reality, lest they suffer more frustration.

Larry Gurganious, the one-time Gonzaga reserve whose long and winding road landed him in Riverside with one year of eligibility, nailed his second buzzer-beating game-winner of the season when his spinning reverse lay-up went in with 1.2 seconds remaining in overtime.

I’m still not sure what to make of Larry. I’ve seen some flashes of brilliance from him in the games I’ve see live, but I’ve also seen a sometimes spacey player prone to mental mistakes. He’s proven that he’s capable of rising up to finish when given the opportunity. Pub Wisdom advises LG to get more aggressive in order to unleash his obvious athleticism even more. One exception: on the fast break, let someone else push the ball while you get in position for the finish. I think I might have better handles, and that’s saying something.

Pub Wisdom is savoring the start of the conference schedule, eager to see just how well the Highlanders size up against the rest of the Big West.  Next up at the  Student Rec Center, where the Highlanders boast an 11-game winning streak? The always-tough UCSB Gauchos. Pub Wisdom’s take? Bring that Isla Vista junk.

Pub Wisdom Predicts: UCR 73, UCSB 66

Highlanders Sweep Homestand, Hit Road for Northridge Test

Time to take over the Matadome.

Great Scott: Time to take over the Matadome.

Pub Wisdom will go ahead and claim it: as predicted, the Highlanders denied all visitors to the Echo Chamber during their recent three-game homestand to move into a tie for third place in the Big West. Wednesday’s win was the biggest of the three, a 2OT barnburner with then-first place Long Beach State. Kyle Austin and Aaron Scott both bounced back from subpar games in the UC Davis win with 20+ points each against the Niners.

Any doubters left who still think Rivi’s not for real? I can think of one particular group of individuals who have their doubts. Namely, the CSUN Matadors, sole owners of first place in the Big West (thanks, in part, to the Highlanders handling Long Beach on Wednesday). The Matadors were picked to finish first in the Big West prior to the season and, despite some serious off-court drama, have lived up to the hype.

Riverside invades CSUN’s home court,  the Matadome, tonight in its biggest conference test yet. Can the Highlanders vaunted defense foil Northridge’s potent attack? The bigger question is whether or not UCR’s D will be accompanied by some offensive production. If there was ever a game for Kyle Austin and/or Aaron Scott to gwoff, this is it.  If one or two others, like Javon Borum, Jalonni Diggs, Jessie LoBue, Brandon Dowdy, or Christian Soto, can contribute, an upset is highly possible. 

All that said, Pub Wisdom reckons it’s a tall order, perhaps too tall. With all the takin’ Rivi’s been doing lately, it’s likely time for the Highlanders to do some givin’.

Tune into the audio stream here. (Look for the link down the right-hand side).

Pub Wisdom Predicts: CSUN 71, UCR 57

How Sweet is Home for Highlanders?

UC Riverside puts its 9-2 home record on the line tonight against LBSU in what is a huge game for both squads.  Are the Niners truly the class of the Big West, as their current position at the top of the table implies? If so, they’ve gotta win road games like this. They’ve proven they can do it — their win at Pacific is emblematic. For the Highlanders, a win tonight would mean sweeping a tough homestand and a 6-5 record — 6 and flippin 5, yo. That’s just freaky.

Riverside closed out UC Davis in front of a SELL OUT crowd of 2725 at the Echodome (can I still cap on it if it sells out? It will be interesting to see how many heads show up when it’s not homecoming).  UCR tried to give the game away to the Aggies a few times in the closing seconds with mental errors but managed to pull it out, despite off nights by team leaders Aaron Scott and Kyle Austin.

How long can I keep calling it the Echo Chamber?

How long can I keep calling it the Echo Chamber?

UCR is  now 5-5 in conference and tied for 4th place. This is the team unanimously tagged to finish last. Let’s not get too excited, but this has been a watershed season just based on what’s gone down so far. A record 13 wins in the D1 era.

Now, back to Long Beach tonight. The Niners will want revenge for being humiliated at home, but will they be looking past Riverside just a bit at their showdown with Fullerton? Let’s hope so.

Here’s my read. Riverside sees this as a huge game and will come out focused. They will outboard LBSU and will be tough on defense. Look for a 20+ performance from Kyle Austin and big nights from Christian Soto, Aaron Scott, and Brandon Dowdy.

Pub Wisdom Predicts: UCR 76, LBSU 66

Highlanders Lock it Down in Long Beach

Step off, son.

Step off, Be-ach.

They went looking for a sacrificial Highlander, someone to come onto their site, LBPostSports.com, to spout and spray about UC Riverside hoops only to have the Niners ultimately eat Rivi’s “lunchables.” They wanted an appetizer before the big game this past weekend between Long Beach State and the Highlanders at the Pyramid. What they got instead was a healthy dose of Pub Wisdom, a Riverside reality check, and — perhaps — some indigestion, as UCR claimed the win, 64-55. Read the Press-Enterprise coverage here.

In all fairness, the dudes from LBPostSports.com are cool and knowledgable, and it was fun to do the little back-and-forth that served as a preview to the game. But let’s face it, they expected that the Niners would easily handle the lowly Highlanders.

And why not expect it? The Niners beat Temple not long ago, for chrissakes. Temple. That thar’s a real basketball team. They beat New Mexico State, which coasted by Riverside in the season opener for both teams. They played Oregon, BYU, Wisconsin and others super tuff and racked up plenty of quality wins, only getting their asses truly handed to them by Big East big-dog Syracuse. And let’s not forget LBSU’s scorching 5-0 run to start Big West play. The Niners — whose roster is chock-a-block with impressionable freshmen — no doubt came into the game with some swagger, while Riverside came in riding a 21-game conference road losing streak.

So they went looking for, and found, a “real life Highlander” to toy with. And yrs truly took the bait. What transpired next was pure Ali in Zaire. Straight rope-a-dope.

I undersold the Highlanders, who then overdelivered. I modestly pointed out their strengths: solid team D, poise down the stretch, balanced scoring. But I didn’t bluster, didn’t claim. Full disclosure: I knew Rivi would come into this game with high intensity, facing the conference frontrunner after dropping three straight Big West fixtures,  but I fully expected them to get outgunned by the 49ers.

Instead, the Highlanders sagged on defense, closing down the lane and daring the 49ers to hit jumpers. They didn’t. Meanwhile, Kyle Austin, Javon Borum, and Adrian Soto all scored in double figures. The Highlanders also significantly outboarded Long Beach State and positively locked down the Pyramid on defense over the final five minutes, in which the Niners failed to score a solitary bucket. All this on TV, no less.

But enough revelry. Let’s level-set, shall we, lest the Highlanders begin to believe the hype. This was a huge win for Highlander hoops — no doubt about it — another proof point in a pleasantly surprising campaign thus far. Now it’s time to make it a replicable phenomenon.

Next up, the Anteaters, those beasts from the Back Bay, visit the Echo Chamber (it may be empty,  but the Highlanders do appear to enjoy home-court advantage there). In a sign of the times, Pub Wisdom actually expects Ws these days, and believes  UC Riverside will deliver one. It should have beaten CSUN at home a couple weeks back, and it will beat UC Irvine there on Thursday.

Pub Wisdom Predicts: UC Riverside 77, UC Irvine 59

Photo: Russell Conroy/LBPostSports.com

The Hammer Drops on the 49ers

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 Traded Places: Masi (left) joined Reynolds’ staff for the storied 24-6 season during which all the shit was hitting the fan behind the scenes.

It’s all very anti-climactic, with a year’s worth of dust accumulated on this shady story, but the NCAA dropped the hammer on Long Beach State’s basketball program on Thursday, hitting it with all sorts of sanctions and penalties.

Larry Reynolds, the darling coach who jump-started Long Beach State’s basketball program,  is long gone. T’was all very fishy when, after posting a stellar 24-6 season that included a Big West crown, a coach of the year award, and a sacrificial-lamb gig against Tennessee in the first round of last year’s big dance — LBSU declined to renew Reynolds’ contract.  Huh? That’s strange… Well, the athletic department and others already had more than an inkling of the shit storm brewing under the surface.

Many of the details of wrong-doings seem ticky-tack, others are not —  read this for a detailed analysis of the situation — but it comes down to this: The 49ers loaded up their 05-06 recruiting class with a raft of academically dicey juco transfers and didn’t cross all the Ts on their eligibility. It’s allegedly more nefarious than that, with coaches actively participating in the charade. Former assistant coach Reggie Howard — one of my favorite players during my undergrad years at UC Riverside, I might add — allegedly aided in the enrollment smoke-and-mirrors.

It turns out six players were not eligible, and the 49ers now have to forfeit games and face recruiting sanctions.  Reynolds’s role is unclear, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t have some influence over the way his program recruits. Did he just look the other way and cross his fingers as his staff bac-doored all these juco ballers?

For someone who learned to love Reynolds while he assisted legendary UCR coach John Masi, and who cheered Reggie Howard — who was so cool in college he somehow pulled off wearing a Davey Crockett-style coonskin hat as he rolled around campus (what was that about?!?) — during the D2 hey-day, this is all very sad.  I marveled as Reynolds built a winner at Long Beach, and loved Reynolds even more when he brought Masi into the fold as an associate head coach for the 06-07 season. Even now, I’m ambivalent about these charges. It’s just sad, that’s all.

Highlanders Scrap Their Way Out of the Cellar

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This is the season we’ll look back on, the season when the present showed glimmers of the future. The season when UC Riverside basketball players began to carry themselves a little differently. The season they began to believe. On the surface, the Highlanders’ overall record to date — 5-15 — is nothing to shout about.

But delve beneath, to the nether regions, and you start to see what I’m talkin’ about. No quit. Tight D. Tough rebounding. Patience on O. It’s all there. First-year coach Jim Wooldridge — his last head coaching job was in the Big 12 at Kansas State — has his team working and believing.

And on Saturday, on national — er, regional — TV, the Highlanders took that symbolic first step out of the Big West cellar by outplaying Cal Poly SLO for a 62-58 win in front of a season-high 1,012 at the Student Rec Center at UCR.

We know misery loves company, but tell first-to-worst Long Beeatch State — now alone in the cellar — that we had to bone out, split, vamoose. UCR and LBSU had been chummy down at the bottom of the table for the past few weeks, both teams clinging to a single conference victory. But while the Highlanders were giving Cal Poly the business, the 49ers were suffering a home loss in the Walter Pyramid to the UCI Eaters.

First they beat LBSU. Now they’ve beaten Cal Poly. Logically, next in the cross hairs should be UCI, an admitted step up the Big West food chain. But UCR had UCI scared at home last week. In fact, UCR has been more competitive across the board this season, hanging with USC and Texas Tech, playing Big West preseason favorite UCSB tough on the road in their last game, and generally staying in games. UCR’s only blowout losses have come at the hands of Gonzaga and Minnesota.

On Saturday, with Prime Ticket commentators Michael Cage and Paul Sunderland quickly on the bandwagon, UCR calmly hammered out a 12-point halftime lead with the consummate veteran Larry Cunningham leading the way. Ball movement, patience on offense, rebounding at both ends of the court (UCR outrebounded the Stangs 41-27 in total), and a fortunate hot streak from behind the arc — all these factors played a role.

And praise Jah for that hot first half, because UCR came out colder than the kegerator at the Fiji house in the second half, not settling down until the last 10 minutes or so. The Mustangs eventually cut the lead to two, but UCR sacked up and found its footing, ultimately grinding out the victory. It was a team effort, with four players in double figures. Cunningham, Cleavon Barlow, Jalonni Diggs (game-high 16 points), Severin Gates, Aaron Scott, Christian Soto, and others all played with heart, composure, and belief in their skills.

UCR is building confidence at the perfect part of the season, and their next game offers a chance to stay on a roll as they are on the road at Long Beach — after 10 days rest. Big West foes: you’re officially on notice as we look down the road to the conference tourney. A handful of wins at the Anaheim Convention Center, and the Highlanders are dancing.

Somewhere, legendary UCR coach John Masi is smiling. Well, probably not, actually. But even he has to recognize the progress. I don’t think he’ll smile until he sees the backside of Stan Morrison filling the doorframe on his way out. I witnessed first-hand the quality of Masi’s program during the D2 golden era, and in Nate Carter and Vili Morton he had the foundation of dangerous team — dangerous — but it was not meant to be. I now can’t help but look forward, with Stan, to the future with high hopes for Wooldridge.

Mark Pub Wisdom’s words — this is the season it all changed for the D1-era Highlanders. The end of the beginning.