Long Beach State’s 75-68 loss to New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last week ended more than just the 49ers’ season – it marked the end of an era.
Members of the Fab Four recruiting class of 2008 – Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps – wore black and yellow for the final time after re-writing the school and Big West Conference record books, and helping establish a new winning culture during their four seasons together. They were heartbroken after the final game of their collegiate careers, and Long Beach State fans felt the same about seeing them go. It was the final moment of a journey that ultimately took the program to new heights.
But for the first time in a long time – in fact, for the first time in four decades – Long Beach State fans have plenty to be excited about following an NCAA Tournament appearance.
The 49ers haven’t made back-to-back appearances in the tournament since 1973, when legendary towel-chomping coach Jerry Tarkanian took them for the fourth consecutive year. That season was also the last time that Long Beach State won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
In recent years, teams from the Big West have made the tournament by stockpiling seniors for one season, leaving them back at ground zero for the following year. It happened to Long Beach State not too long ago, in 2007, when the 49ers followed up a tournament appearance by firing head coach Larry Reynolds, hiring Dan Monson and achieving a 6-25 record with the depleted roster.
Looking forward to the 2012-13 season, exactly forty years after Long Beach’s last consecutive tournament appearance and tournament victory, Monson will have his hands full trying to reverse both of those woeful streaks. The funny thing is, he just may have the team to do it.
Long Beach will be in good hands next season, led by two players who were newcomers to the team this year. Junior forward and Honorable Mention All-Conference selection James Ennis and freshman point guard Mike Caffey each played major roles in the 49ers’ success in 2011-12. Ennis made his mark as an excellent defender, versatile offensive threat and highlight dunker, while Caffey eased any fears about the absence of Player of the Year Ware at the point guard position, and also found his scoring touch as the season progressed. They’ll return to keep the conference’s second-highest scoring offense humming along smoothly. Joining them will be reserves Peter Pappageorge and Nick Shepherd, who specialized in three-point shooting and post defense, respectively. Forward Kyle Richardson and dead-eye guard Kris Gulley will suit up after red-shirting this season.
But most intriguing of all, Monson and the 49ers will welcome an exciting and potentially dominant quartet of players who are transferring to Long Beach State from previous schools. Add this new Fab Four to the already successful mix of returning players, and the 49ers look to be in prime position for another, possibly even better season that they enjoyed this year. They do not come without concerns, however.
If all goes as planned, Monson will suit up 6’7” forward Tony Freeland from DePaul, 6’10” center Edgar Garibay from Loyola Marymount, 6’10” center Dan Jennings from West Virginia and highly-touted 6’5” star guard Keala King from Arizona State. They will all register as juniors, and could all be available as early as December (Jennings transferred last June and will be eligible right away after sitting out the 2011-12 season). Petitions for eligibility are underway, so availabilities aren’t yet certain for the new 49ers.
What is certain is that the transfer class gives Long Beach State an influx of size, talent and experience – a deadly, almost non-existent combination in the Big West. But it isn’t time to start the Pyramid party just yet.
Garibay and Freeland have suffered major injuries in the past, the former LMU player missing extensive time with a torn ACL and the former DePaul player sitting out this past season after shoulder surgery. Both are locally-grown, talented big men who can add a lot to a 49er team losing its all-time career rebounding leader in Robinson, but the team will need to keep a close eye on their health.
Jennings and King will demand a different kind of attention. Both left their previous schools on a sour note, with Jennings clashing with Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins and King being dismissed for “unacceptable conduct” even while he led the Sun Devils in scoring. Everyone deserves a second chance, and Jennings appeared to have a great attitude as he spent this season cheering his teammates on from the bench, but the question must be raised: How great is the risk in bringing aboard two players with past behavioral issues?
Well, three, actually. Freshman recruit Deng Deng – part of a strong class that includes guards Branford Jones and Javion Watson – reportedly butted heads with his coach and did not play high school basketball in his senior season.
The 2011-12 Long Beach State team achieved unprecedented success, due largely to the players’ strong bond and genuine affinity for one another. In trying to replicate that success, Monson has arranged a team that undoubtedly has the talent, but also raises red flags that didn’t exist in the Casper Ware era. His challenge will be to nourish an exciting group of players so that they can grow together, and avoid past transgressions that led to unsavory exits.
And just maybe they’ll wash away a 40-year sour grape.