National media attention for men’s college basketball reaches a new all-time high every year because the NCAA Tournament is built on great stories on and off the court. One of the best stories for this year’s March Madness is right here in our city.

Long Beach State made an improbable run to a Big West Conference tournament championship last weekend, and that earned them a chance to dance in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. But that’s not the best part. The Beach did all of that with a lame-duck coach.

Dan Monson is the winningest coach in LBSU men’s basketball history and after 17 years at the helm, the university told him before the conference tournament that they would not be renewing Monson’s contract after the season.

New athletic director Bobby Smitheran delivered that news to Monson last Monday, just three days before their conference tournament opener in Henderson, Nevada.

“It was a sad moment for everybody,” said LBSU forward Lassina Traore. “We had to find another gear. Firing him, it’s not his fault, it’s everyone’s fault. We were making mistakes. We were losing games. The leaders of the team had several meetings and talked about it. We cannot take this for granted.”

Lassina Traore high-fives a teammate after the Big West Conference tournament championship. Photo by JJ Fidler.

After a campaign full of ups and downs, LBSU ended the regular season on a 5-game losing streak and then proceeded to beat UC Riverside, top-seeded UC Irvine and UC Davis in the conference tournament to earn its way into the NCAA Tournament.

The story of a fired coach leading a team to the tournament has drawn national attention from ESPN, CBS and others as one of the big storylines of the tournament.

“No matter what we were going to give everything to give coach Monson a championship,” said LBSU guard Aboubacar Traore, who was named MVP after recording the only triple-double in Big West tournament history in the quarterfinals. “After 17 years, and they tell you that you can’t be here next year, and you still decide to do your job until the end. That’s what clicked.”

Monson and both players got emotional at the press conference after winning the Big West title while talking about how the team was more like a family.

“I feel pretty blessed and lucky to ride with these guys,” said Monson. “Certainly we’re proud to represent the university but it came down to this week, we did it for each other. We did it for our families.”

That selfless approach has always been paramount in the college game where sometimes collective effort can overcome individual talent. The “Cinderella story” is a March Madness staple and that’s the vibe that this Beach squad has headed to Salt Lake City, Utah for the West Region of the national bracket. The No. 15 seed Long Beach State takes on No. 2 Arizona Thursday morning. Tipoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.

“I’ve been to the NCAA Tournament, and my wife said she’s never had drugs in her life but it’s got to be a similar feeling,” said Monson. “It’s a high that I’m expecting these guys to enjoy and soak in.”

To pull off another upset the Beach will need to embrace that underdog mentality and respond with a lot of emotion early in the game on Thursday. It just so happens that the emotional leader this season is Long Beach native Jadon Jones.

Jones went to St. Anthony High School and has been a huge part of LBSU’s success. He has an incredible knack for drilling 3-pointers while under duress and will slap the floor before defending in order to pump his team up.

“Jadon Jones had three points the first (conference tournament) game, but he had 15 points the next game,” said A. Traore. “He was just focusing on what he does best, which is shoot when you can, but also play defense. We know when Jadon slaps the floor he’s going to get a steal or block. That’s how it is.”

“I love this city, everything about it and what it stands for, and it’s an honor and a blessing to bring a championship to this city, but this is way deeper than being a local kid from Long Beach,” said Jones. “This is about everyone.”