Nov. 4, 2011
The mission is simple for the 2011-12 Long Beach State 49ers. Nothing less than a trip to the NCAA Tournament is acceptable.
The 49ers have nearly accomplished that goal the last two seasons, but back-to-back losses in the Big West Tournament championship game have left LBSU with a clear-cut goal. Dan Monson's team returns four starters, all of whom earned postseason All-Big West honors as juniors last season. And all four have experienced and are motivated by the disappointment of the last two conference tournament championship game losses.
Senior point guard Casper Ware has blossomed into the leader of a 49er team that returns 10 lettermen and one redshirt, and has added a handful of talented recruits that Monson expects to help push Long Beach State into the NCAA Tournament. Ware became the first player to earn both Big West Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, while also being named an honorable mention All-American. This season, Ware is one of just 50 players named to the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 List, the preseason watch list for the national player of the year award.
Joining Ware as returning starters are senior guard Larry Anderson and senior forwards T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps. The four have combined to start 303 of the 382 games they have collectively played at LBSU, while scoring 4,384 career points. Anderson, Robinson and Ware all rank in the top 15 all-time in scoring at Long Beach State as members of the school's 1,000-point club. Phelps needs just 290 points to join his teammates with 1,000 career points.
Anderson is a two-time first-team All-Big West selection. In 2008-09 he became just the second freshman in Big West history to be named first-team all-conference, and then after an injury plagued sophomore season, Anderson earned first-team honors again as a junior. He enters his senior season ranked among the conference's active leaders in seven of eight career categories, including points (5th), rebounds (5th), assists (2nd) and steals (2nd).
Robinson also ranks among the Big West Conference active career leaders in a number of categories and figures to finish the season as the league's, as well as LBSU's, all-time rebounding leader. The Connecticut native needs just 36 rebounds to set a new 49er career record for boards, while needing 255 to become the Big West all-time leader. Robinson, who is one of just six players in Division I basketball to average a double-double each of the last two seasons, can also become the first player in Big West history to average double-digit rebounds in three consecutive seasons.
Phelps, an honorable mention All-Big West pick last year, also ranks among the career Big West leaders in three categories and trails only Robinson on the career rebound list. In addition to being within striking range of 1,000-career points, Phelps is on pace to finish in the top five in LBSU history in rebounds and blocked shots.
Long Beach State's four returning starters highlight a team that has been battle tested playing two of the nation's toughest non-conference schedules the last two seasons. Last season, KenPom.com ranked LBSU's strength of schedule as the toughest in the nation heading into league play. The 49ers played six teams during non-conference action that qualified for the NCAA Tournament, one that played in the NIT and two that were selected to play in the CBI. The 49ers faced a pair of eventual No. 2 seeds (San Diego State, North Carolina) in the NCAA Tournament, as well as a No. 7 seed (Washington), two No. 12 seeds (Utah State and Clemson) and a No. 14 seed (Saint Peter's).
Two years ago, LBSU had the top-ranked schedule by realtimerpi.com, squaring off against five top 25 teams, including eventual National Champion Duke and West Virginia, a Final Four team. Over the last two seasons, Long Beach State has played 18 games against teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, including eight in 2010-11.
Things don't look to be any easier for the 49ers this year. LBSU will play against five teams that are ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, while tangling with at least seven teams that played in last year's NCAA Tournament. The 49ers open the season at home against Idaho on Nov. 12, before a pair of road games at No. 11 Pittsburgh and San Diego State, who advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. The 49ers return home to host Boise State before traveling to play seven of nine on the road before opening league play on Jan. 2.
During the long stretch before conference action opens, Long Beach State will visit Montana, No. 8 Louisville, No. 13 Kansas, No. 1 North Carolina, and play three games in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu where the 49ers open the tournament with No. 15 Xavier. LBSU could also face Kansas State or Clemson in Hawaii, both of which advanced to the NCAA Tournament last year.
"We haven't mentioned at-large bids in years past because we haven't felt it was realistic, but this year we're going to challenge them with that," Monson told YahooSports.com during the off season. "I don't think there's any way we can get around the fact that if we don't make the NCAA Tournament, it's going to be a very disappointing year for us. And this preseason schedule gives them a chance to control their own destiny right off the bat."
Another benefit of the 49ers tough schedule is national media attention. LBSU could play as many as 13 television games heading into the Big West Tournament, with a guaranteed 10 games being broadcast. The 49ers' games at Pitt, Louisville, Kansas, and UC Santa Barbara will all be carried on one of the ESPN networks, as will Long Beach State's home games against UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Fullerton and at least two of its games in Hawaii. PRIME TICKET will broadcast the 49ers home game against Pacific and FS WEST will carry their road game at Cal State Fullerton. Add in a possible third TV game in Hawaii, a possible BracketBuster TV game, and another possible league game television appearance against Cal State Northridge on Feb.4, and nearly half of Long Beach State's regular season games will be broadcast.
Experience, depth and versatility should all be strengths in the backcourt for Long Beach State. Unlike the last couple of seasons where Monson had to play his starters for a bulk of the game, he should have the option to spread minutes between more players and therefore allow his starters to be fresher come Big West Tournament time.
Ware (5-10, 175) returns to lead the 49ers, but Monson could use as many as four different players at the point guard position. Ware turned in one of the finest seasons by a point guard in Long Beach State history last season finishing second in the Big West in scoring, averaging 17.2 points per game. He also ranked among the conference leaders in assists (2nd), steals (4th), 3-point field goals made (5th), free throw percentage (6th), 3-point field goal percentage (7th), and assist-to-turnover ratio (8th).
Freshman Mike Caffey (6-0, 170) should provide a quality backup for Ware and at times allow the senior to move to the shooting guard position. Caffey earned first-team All-CIF Southern Section accolades as a senior at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., last season and has been impressive in preseason workouts. Monson hopes the addition of Caffey will allow junior Jerramy King (5-11, 170), who played in 22 games last season, to redshirt.
Anderson (6-5, 210), could spell Ware and Caffey at the point, but Monson hopes to play the Long Beach native on the wing for a bulk of his playing time. Anderson averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season, while leading the Big West in steals despite missing six games with a hand injury.
"That injury shows how valuable he was," Monson said. "We went 1-5 without him and we went 17-4 the rest of the way. He is extremely valuable to us because of his versatility and his leadership. He just does so many things. I don't know many kids in the country who are your starting three-man and your back-up point guard."
A pair of returners and a group of newcomers will compete to fill the other wing position. Senior Corey Jackson (6-0, 185) proved to be a consistent shooter in limited action as a junior, but Monson says he will need to get better command of the system and improve defensively to move into the regular lineup. Fellow senior Sean Starkey (6-4, 190) is in the mix and Monson says he offers "good size and he can make shots."
The new faces that could factor in the backcourt include three junior college transfers and a pair of freshmen, including Caffey. Junior James Ennis (6-6, 190) "has a lot of ability and a feel for the game" says Monson. He scored over 1,000 career points in junior college while being named first-team All-California Community College Athletic Association as a sophomore at Ventura College.
Sophomore Kris Gulley (6-7, 175) spent one season at Independence Community College in Kansas where he averaged 10.3 points and 4.7 rebounds while leading his team to a 23-9 record. Monson says he has "great length and a good skill set." Junior Peter Pappageorge (6-0, 175) comes to LBSU as a proven scorer, averaging 19.5 points per game while being named first-team all-state at Canada College.
Freshman Shaquille Hunter (6-2, 165) is a good athlete who can make shots according to Monson. Hunter earned first-team All-CIF Southern Section 2AA honors as a senior after averaging 23.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Robinson (6-8, 205) and Phelps (6-7, 225) return as the starters on the frontline, and despite neither possessing optimal size, both have put up big numbers in scoring and rebounding during their careers. The pair has combined to score 2,020 career points and grab 1,346 career rebounds, an average of 20.8 points and 13.9 rebounds per game.
"We don't have a true five but that has been good for our versatility," Monson said. "Both Gene and T.J. have worked hard and expanded their skill set to help us spread the floor."
Senior Edis Dervisevic (6-8, 250) will spell both Robinson and Phelps for the second straight year. As a junior, Dervisevic battled an early-season foot injury and struggled to get back to 100 percent. Monson says Dervisevic, who was voted as one of three team captains by his teammates, "is ready to contribute more with a year under his belt."
The fourth spot in the frontcourt is an open competition heading into the season. Redshirt freshman Nick Shepherd (6-9, 218) adds athleticism to the front line that the 49ers haven't seen during the Monson Era. The Texas native will block shots and help LBSU in transition. "I feel good about his progress," Monson said. "Nick adds something defensively and runs the court well."
If Shepherd progresses, the 49ers could redshirt junior Kyle Richardson (6-7, 225), who Monson says is in the best shape of his life. Richardson has played in 42 games in his first two seasons at Long Beach State, but has only seen limited playing time. Junior center Mike Vantrimpont (7-0, 220) returns, as well, and will look to make a push for playing time.
Junior Dan Jennings (6-9, 255) will redshirt for the 49ers after transferring from West Virginia. While unable to play in games, he will push the 49ers in practice on a daily basis and should make a difference in making the 49ers big men better.
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