Nov. 1, 2013
Long Beach, Calif. - Are you all in?
That's the question, every day, for the 2013-14 edition of Long Beach State Men's Basketball, as the 49ers work towards their goals of returning to the NCAA Tournament while once again repeating as champions. This year's group has a chance to earn a fourth consecutive postseason berth, an accomplishment reached only once before at Long Beach State.
In 2012-13, Long Beach State came into the season the defending Big West regular season champions, played a grueling non-conference schedule, and finished the season on top once again. But despite the results, head coach Dan Monson wasn't happy with how that group represented the school, the fanbase, the 49ers. It wasn't about rules, but attitudes, and so Keala King, Tony Freeland, Deng Deng, and Gatate Djuma were all released and while Kyle Richardson was welcome back, after his graduation Richardson elected to pursue a postgraduate degree and more playing time at Portland State.
So, this season, the defending Big West regular season champions will play a grueling non-conference schedule and try to finish on top again, but with a much different look than last season. "This group is going to have to execute to have success," said Monson. "They all have to do their job, since this group is going to win as a team, and not as individuals."
That said, two individuals will be counted on to lead the way for the group in junior point guard Mike Caffey and senior forward Dan Jennings. Caffey was a key contributor on Long Beach State's 2011-12 NCAA Tournament team as a freshman, before earning first-team All-Big West honors one season ago. Caffey is the leading returning scorer, averaging 12.0 points per game last season, and also added four rebounds per game along with 3.81 assists per game while starting every game for the 49ers.
"Mike has credibility because he's done it," said Monson. "He's got experience. He's played in big games, and played well in them. He's got to continue to develop in using that experience to take the other guys with him. The least of my concerns is Mike's play, but a point guard is measured by his team's wins and losses and his ability to take a group and win with them."
Caffey won't be going it alone however, as the 49ers return another starter in Dan Jennings. Jennings is another player who has bought in, as the 6-9 forward lost around 25 pounds, emerging as an increased threat in the low post after already averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds a season ago.
"Dan is one of those people that really has to trust before he can find success, and that's taken him some time, to trust his teammates, trust the system, and trust his coaches," said Monson. "I think he's really bought in now, and nobody has worked harder during the offseason than Dan. You really root for someone when they've put in the time the way that he has."
Those two will have to carry the burden of leadership for a team that will once again face a difficult schedule. The 49ers have two games against ranked opponents right off the bat, playing at Arizona as well as against Michigan in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which the 49ers will participate in from November 21-24. The 49ers will also have trips to Washington, Kansas State, NC State, Nevada and Missouri in the non-conference slate while hosting USC and Creighton before beginning Big West action on January 9.
Along with Caffey and Jennings, the 49ers do return two other letterwinners from a year ago in guard/forward Kris Gulley and forward Nick Shepherd. Gulley played in 31 games for the 49ers as a sophomore, starting in 10, while Shepherd played in 22 as a sophomore.
Gulley had some good games for the 49ers as a junior college transfer, including a 12-point game against Arizona, and the staff is looking for more consistency from the wing player. For Shepherd, the junior is entering his fourth year with the program, and the time is ripe for the athletic 6-9 forward to step into a more prominent role for Long Beach State.
Two redshirts will step in for the 49ers in 2013 as well. Javion Watson was a prolific scorer in high school, and after one year at Long Beach State will get a chance to complement Caffey in the backcourt. Additionally, the 49ers are excited about the return of Branford Jones, whose first season with the 49ers was cut short after an injury in the first game of the year.
"Branford had a very major injury, and he's still on the road back after having to stay off of his leg for over six months," said Monson. "He's still vital to this team though. He gives us an option to rest [Caffey] some, and he can also play at the off-guard position."
The bulk of the remaining time on the floor will likely be shared by four junior college transfers, two in the frontcourt and two in the backcourt. 6-7 forward David Samuels comes to the 49ers from Collin College in Plano, Texas, where he was a two-time first-team all-conference selection. Samuels will see time primarily at the power forward position, where his ability to stretch the defense both with outside shooting and with his back to the basket will be a benefit for the 49ers. Christian Griggs-Williams played for two seasons at Mesa Community College, and is a more traditional post player at 6-9, who will put pressure on opponents from the inside, similar to Jennings.
Both junior college guards will play a key role for the 49ers as well. A.J. Spencer is a 6-3 guard that is very balanced, doing many things well that will be a key player alongside Caffey in the backcourt. McKay LaSalle will also see time in the backcourt, the best pure shooter on the team, and a player that can score in a hurry when he gets hot. Freshman Desmond Ross also joins the program out of Glendale, Ariz., and will provide depth at the guard position in his first year with the program.
The 49ers will also get a mid-season boost with the addition of Tyler Lamb. Lamb, after a superb sophomore campaign with UCLA, played just one game for the Bruins before transferring out of Westwood. He will become eligible for Long Beach State at the close of the fall academic semester, and his versatility to play any of three positions will only add to his impact with the 49ers.
"Tyler gives us experience and some leadership. He's another guy that can score in a variety of ways, and is a good defender and rebounder," said Monson. "I think he'll be a nice addition once he's available to us."
Long Beach State will likely have three additional players sit out for the season. Charles Lockett, a transfer from Benedictine College is not immediately eligible, while Edgar Garibay is out for the season with an ACL tear and true freshman Anson Moye will be sidelined for at least a few months with a broken foot.
"This is maybe not as talented of a group as we've had in the last couple of years, but that doesn't mean that they can't be as successful," said Monson. "They have to get comfortable, trust each other, and I think that they'll be fine."
Alongside Monson and his staff, Caffey and Jennings will have to lead the way, but both have made tremendous strides both individually and as leaders. Following an early-season practice, Caffey gathered his group with the call, "All In," that has been adopted as this team's motto. And there's no better way to describe the plan and purpose for this group, one that is looking to effort and pride to help craft positive results throughout the year.
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