In an effort to dispell any notion of a Midwest, East Coast, or any other geographical bias, the Non-BCS Watch List heads out West for the next stop.
Long Beach State 49ers
After a brutal non-conference schedule, the 49ers sat at 5-8 heading into Big West play. They proceeded to reel off winning streaks of six and eight games en route to a 14-2 conference record. Their NCAA hopes ended in the Big West Finals against a red hot UC Santa Barbara squad, and their season came to a close after a first round NIT loss to Washington State. Still, LBSU’s 22 wins were a far cry from the six victories they had in Coach Dan Monson’s first season back in 2007-08.
The 49ers finished just inside the Top 100 in the Pomeroy Ratings. Their offense ranked 106th, and outside of a Top 75 free throw rate, the other key factors all ranked in the middle of the pack. On defense, there was a large gap between the Pomeroy’s four factors. They excelled in limiting opponents’ free throw rates and offensive rebounds, but they struggled to force turnovers and limit their opponents’ shooting numbers.
For a team that played at a relatively fast pace (Top 50 in possessions per game), the 49ers essentially used a seven man rotation. Two of those players, sharpshooter Greg Plater and reserve guard TristanWilson, graduated last year. While the other members of that rotation are back, it will be important for Monson to mix in other players to avoid late-season fatigue.
This Year’s 49ers
The leader of this senior-laden team is guard Casper Ware, who earned both conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. He led the team with 17.2 points and 4.4 assists, finished second in steals, and knocked down better than 38 percent from beyond the arc. Despite his 5-foot-10 frame, Ware is adept at getting to the line, where he converts at an 81 percent clip. While he did score at least 20 points 12 times last year, Ware is an equally effective passer as evidenced by his high assist rate. On defense, he is a disruptive on-ball defender with a solid steal percentage. He should be an early favorite to repeat as Big West POY.
Ware’s backcourt mate, six-foot-five Larry Anderson, did a little of everything for this team last year and joined him on the All-Big West first team. He finished second on the team in points (14.3 ppg) and assists (3.3 apg), third in rebounds (6.3 rpg), and first in steals with nearly two per game. Anderson doesn’t shoot many three-pointers, which is a good thing for a guy who hit 57.1 percent from inside the arc last year. Like Ware, he rates out well in assist rate and steal percentage and does a nice job of getting to the stripe.
On the inside, forward T.J. Robinson averaged a double-double last season with 13.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per contest. It was actually his second straight season averaging a double-double, and he enters the season just 36 rebounds shy of the school record. Robinson was particularly effective at patrolling the defensive glass, ranking 31st in the nation in defensive rebound percentage. He did a nice job on the offensive boards as well and hit 50 percent of his shots from the field. Despite his aggressiveness on the glass, Robinson commits very few fouls, which is good news for a team who relies so much on a limited number of players.
Joining Robinson up front is Eugene Phelps, who finished second on the team in rebounding last year while posting nearly 10 points per game. He scored in double figures 17 times and was the team’s best shot blocker. Phelps is solid on both the offensive and defensive glass, and he does a nice job getting to the line. His success rate once he gets there could use some work, as could his turnover rate. Still, Phelps provides another consistent and reliable role player for the 49ers.
After those four guys, no returnee stands out. Edis Dervisevic logged 15 minutes per game last season, but posted just 2.1 points and 2.2 rebounds. He does give Monson another big body inside. Guard Corey Jackson played sparingly in his first season with the team, but he did flash some shooting ability. Expect a sharp increase in his playing time this year.
A number of newcomers will also be in the mix for Long Beach State. Freshman guards Michael Caffey and Shaquille Hunter are the highest-rated recruits of the bunch. Caffey’s speed and passing ability set him up as the point guard of the future, but he’s in a great situation to learn from Ware for now. Hunter can fill it up from either downtown or off the dribble. Anderson’s size in the backcourt opens the door for a potential three-guard lineup if Hunter gets off to a hot start.
A pair of junior college transfers are expected to contribute on the wing. James Ennis was named Player of the Year in his conference and was lauded by Monson for his versatility and length. Kris Gulley averaged 10.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in his lone year of junior college and should provide depth off the bench.
A third juco transfer, Peter Pappageorge, is joining the team as an invited walk-on. I can’t speak to the level of competition in the Coast Conference, but he did average nearly 20 points and hit 41 percent from deep. Redshirt freshman Nick Shepherd gives the team additional height and could work his way into the rotation off the bench.
After winning the Big West by four games last season, there’s no reason to expect Long Beach State can’t repeat given the talented nucleus they have returning. Monson has done a tremendous job rebuilding the program, and everything seems lined up for a big season.
Everything, that is, except for a non-conference gauntlet few teams would even consider. The 49ers travel to Pittsburgh, San Diego State, and Louisville. And that’s just in November. In December, they face Kansas and North Carolina on the road before competing in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii where a first round matchup with Xavier awaits. The good news is that it gives them multiple chances to prove themselves on a national stage and sets them up well for a high strength of schedule and RPI come Selection Sunday.
The quartet of Ware, Anderson, Robinson, and Phelps should do most of the heavy lifting, but the development of other players on the roster will ultimately determine Long Beach State’s fate for this season and beyond. There are a number of potential options and lineup combinations at Monson’s disposal, and I think that Hunter and Ennis are the best bets to make an early impact. Any less than a tournament berth would be a disappointment in my eyes, but if other players can step up, the 49ers will be a team no one wants to face come March.