LONG BEACH, Calif. — Winning is supposed to be fun, but Long Beach State earned its fourth-straight Big West Championship last season without head coach Dan Monson having much of it.
A team full of high-profile Division I transfers, three of which were thrown into the mix in midseason, were talented on the court but personalities and egos clashed off the court. They failed to make the NCAA tournament and Monson took drastic action following the semester, dismissing Tony Freeland, Keala King and Deng Deng from the team.
In a way, it was addition by subtraction.
“We had so much talent but nobody listened,” said forward Dan Jennings. “Coach is happy this year, he’s a lot happier than he was last year.”
And the 49ers have yet to even register a win.
The move was deemed controversial by many, as Freeland and King had been an integral part of a conference championship and Deng Deng a key freshman reserve with a high upside. Coupled with the graduation of Big West Player of the Year James Ennis, the 49ers are heading into the season as the underdogs for the first time since the early years of Monson’s six-season tenure.
“I think fun is a relative term when you’re coaching because winning is the bottom line and it’s a lot harder to win when you don’t have as much physical talent,” Monson said. “Physical talent is still a very powerful thing for athletics. You can have all of the chemistry and character you want but if you get overwhelmed physically then it’s not enough.
“But I do think these guys like each other, they’re all academically focused and they’re all working very hard to be good basketball players and good people.”
Point guard Mike Caffey is one of those physically gifted talents. Playing nearly all 40 minutes of each game as a sophomore, Caffey averaged 12 points and nearly four assists. A team-first player in locker room with me-first players, Caffey at times tried to be the whole team and produce on his own when others weren’t. The young leader struggled to find his voice. But while frustrating at the time, it was a big growing year for the junior out of Riverside.
“This year, we have a lot of guys that want to learn,” Caffey said. “I’ve got to be more vocal and tell the guys and get everybody on one page.”
Caffey won’t be quite as taxed physically this season with the return of Branford Jones, who broke his leg in the season-opener and was forced to sit out the rest of the year. Forward Jennings (8.4 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) is a player that very much wants to be at The Beach and will anchor the front court, along with junior Kris Gulley and junior college transfer Christian Griggs-Williams.
Only one high-major transfer will enter the rotation at midseason, former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb.
The defending champs aren’t exactly defenseless. Maybe not the clear-cut favorite anymore, they could possibly be in a better position than before with the clubhouse cancers gone in favor of chemistry.
“This year, we got a lot of things done early,” Jennings said. “As far as our plays, we learned the plays like the first week. We’re executing a lot better and we’re playing harder.”
“I always say that 18-20 year olds – they don’t need confidence,” Monson said. “They need reality.”