After just missing the NCAA tournament last season, both Long Beach State and Saint Mary's have the talent, experience and motivation to be dangerous in March
Long Beach State
(16--6, 9--0 Big West)
The 49ers turned heads last fall with wins over then No. 9 Pitt and then No. 14 Xavier, two of seven foes who were ranked at some point this season. Its quartet of senior starters, including 5'10" point guard Casper Ware—the Big West's top defensive and overall player last year—have all left marks on the school record books, but their legacy won't be complete without the program's first trip to the NCAAs since 2007. "We've gotten better every year, and now we're in the best mental position we've been in," says coach Dan Monson. "We trust each other, we fight back together. So hopefully, this is our year."
(21--2, 10--0 West Coast)
Blowouts have been the norm for the No. 18 Gaels, who thumped conference foes BYU (98--82 on Dec. 29) and Gonzaga (83--62 on Jan. 12). Led by junior point guard Matthew Dellavedova, an Aussie whose 6.4 assists a game ranks ninth in the country, and 6'6" senior forward Rob Jones, who averages a double double (14.3 ppg and 10.8 rpg), the team boasts one of the nation's most efficient offenses, making assists on 63% of its baskets while rarely turning the ball over. (Its 16.6 apg is 16th in the country, and its 1.38 assist-to-turnover ratio is 10th.) With that unselfishness and an improved defense, Saint Mary's has the tools to end Gonzaga's run of 11 straight conference titles.