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November 11, 2013

No. 6 Arizona not among worries for Long Beach St.

The last time Long Beach State visited McKale Center was an ugly affair, but head coach Dan Monson has never been one to be concerned about his win-loss record in nonconference play.

His 49ers went on to lose by 22 points that night, one of four double-digit losses to ranked opponents last season, but the yearly Murderers' Row scheduling philosophy toughened the group up to win the program's third consecutive Big West Conference regular-season title.

LBSU (1-0), which will face sixth-ranked Arizona (1-0) in an 8 p.m. MT tipoff Monday, is in even worse shape this time around, believe it or not.

"[The roster] is not just unknown on paper, it's not just unknown in Arizona - it's unknown to me," said Monson, who dismissed three key pieces - Keala King, Tony Freeland and Deng Deng - from the 19-win 49ers in May.

Monson added that until The Beach competes in a Division I game, the questions will remain on a team that also lost Big West player of the year and outgoing senior James Ennis to the NBA draft. The 49ers, picked to finish fourth in their league, have the difficult task of establishing chemistry with seven newcomers - including UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb, who will not be eligible until December.

The Wildcats will be the first in another installment of Monson's take-on-anyone-and-everyone nonconference slate, which includes No. 7 Michigan, Kansas State, Washington, Creighton, N.C. State, USC, Missouri, and possibly No. 14 Virginia Commonwealth.

But it is never about the other team for Monson, who is fully aware of the Wildcats' size advantage and wealth of athleticism.

"I'll probably be one of the only coaches who plays Arizona this year that's not really concerned about Arizona," Monson said. "I'm excited that we get to play one of the top teams in the country, just so right out of the gate we have a barometer of how far back we are from that caliber of a team. We just want to come in and compete and get better.

"Last year's game [against the Wildcats] was super ugly - it was probably one of the worst games we played all year - but it helped us."

For the time being, junior point guard Mike Caffey - one of just two returning starters, along with center Dan Jennings - will be looked upon to lead the way. So far, so good.

Well, sort of.

In last Saturday's season opener, Caffey poured in a career-high 27 points to go with nine rebounds, four assists and four steals in a 71-59 win over Division II program Hawaii Pacific. The 49ers led by as many as 17 early, but a porous 17-of-29 effort from the free-throw line and a 34.8 percent display from the field kept the game tight inside the final two minutes.

Jennings, a 6-9, 245-pound transfer from West Virginia, notched a double-double with 10 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. However, he missed all six of his free throws.

David Samuels, a JC transfer forward, added 11 points and eight rebounds, and Monson said it will be important for his four JC transfers to provide an immediate impact.

"As I keep telling these junior college players, you don't go to junior college for depth. You don't go for junior college players to sit on the bench," Monson said.

"You need them in your rotation."

But the bulk of the load ultimately rests on the shoulders of Caffey, who made just 1 of 7 shots and finished with three points and seven assists in last season's 94-72 loss to the then-No. 10 Wildcats. Brandon Ashley scored a career-high 20 points on 6-of-6 shooting and pulled down 10 rebounds for UA.

The challenge for Caffey will only be tougher the second time around.

UA junior point guard T.J. McConnell was known for his pesky on-ball defense during his first two seasons at Duquesne. McConnell sat out last year, per NCAA transfer rules, but has already proved to be an upgrade with his pass-first mentality.

In last Friday's 73-62 win over Cal Poly, McConnell collected six assists and added two steals in his debut, and six Wildcats scored in double figures in the opener. Star freshman forward Aaron Gordon produced a double-double in his collegiate debut, finishing with team highs of 13 rebounds, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.

But the 'Cats allowed 11 3-pointers - seven to Mustangs guard Kyle Odister - surrendered 10 offensive rebounds and made just 20 of 36 free throws to offset a 57.1 percent night from the field.

UA head coach Sean Miller viewed the game as a lesson.

"I feel good about leaving here with a victory because tonight's opponent was very worthy," Miller said. "We're in a tough stretch. We play five games in 12 days, and our next one will be very similar on Monday against Long Beach State. So, we move forward, hoping to learn from tonight's game and be better on Monday."

Arizona also received a boost from guard Gabe York, who earned his first career start in place of hobbled 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski. York scored all but one of his 12 points in the second half and made 2 of 4 from beyond the arc.

Now comes a reunion for the sophomore, who was Caffey's AAU teammate on the Compton Magic. But it will be strictly business with his good friend by tipoff, York said.

"When we get on the court, I'm on Arizona, he's on Long Beach State," York added.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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