Long Beach State eager to head back to NCAA tournament

It’s a drought by modern Long Beach State standards. 

After a one-year hiatus, the team that won three straight Big West Championships spent a year rebuilding their identity in order to get back to their championship ways. 

The first step to that was extending head coach Dan Monson, who is only four wins away from the most in program history, for five more years.

"The extension really shows that the university has confidence in what we’re doing here and in the direction of the program," Monson said. "I wake up every day honored to represent this university and am thrilled to have that opportunity for years to come."

The Beach was one of the the trendiest mid-major basketball programs around as they built up a core group that was unbeatable in conference play and even managed wins against ranked teams. Two players from the 2012 NCAA tournament team, Casper Ware and James Ennis, went on to play in the NBA. 

But then there came wins without much heart, and a lot of heart but without quite as many wins. The 49ers finished 10-6 in the Big West last year but just 15-17 overall. This season’s group isn’t the outright favorite like it once was, but it has gotten stronger in a lot of areas both on the court and off. 

It all starts with three-time All-Big West point guard Mike Caffey. 

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"We’re always talking and trying to figure out how to better the team," said Caffey’s roommate, Tyler Lamb. "We put ourselves in game situations and talk about beating teams on our non-conference schedule, because we have the No. 1 non-conference schedule, and we talk about how we can better get our guys in better positions to score. We talk about leading the team."

Team leader is a role that Caffey has had to play for two seasons now. As a sophomore, Caffey was named a captain after the deep group of seniors left. For a shy, quiet guard with a tendency to try to put the team on his back, it’s been challenging. 

"Every player his their strengths and weaknesses and it’s not something he’s very comfortable, with but he’s worked on it for four years," Monson said. "Mike has always been a leader but it’s always been in a quiet way. And I tell him, ‘People will listen to you.’ That’s never been an issue. When he was a freshman he had guys’ respect because he plays hard, and he’s a good player and all of those things. 

"But using that respect is what he’s trying to do better."

Caffey averaged 16.2 points and 4.3 assists with 45 steals last season. He plays all 40 minutes regularly, but when the team struggles he takes it upon himself to do it all.

But there’s more depth this season, more help on the wings and less reliance on the inside-outside game that primarily consisted of post player Dan Jennings and Caffey. 

"We’re going to try and stretch the floor a little bit and give guys room to bounce the ball," Monson said. "Give room for some lanes, some penetrate-and-kicks, those type of things. So we’re working on those kind of things, but it’s still kind of a new offense because we don’t have Dan Jennings or kind of a true post."

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Who they do have on the inside is 6-foot-7 senior David Samuels as well as two players who the Big West hasn’t seen much of: forwards Travis Hammonds, who played only part of the season with Long Beach last year, and Eric McKnight, a transfer from Florida Gulf Coast who played on the 2013 Sweet 16 "Dunk City" team.

The Beach is no stranger to high-major or high-profile transfers, but in the past two seasons, many haven’t been eligible until the conference portion of the schedule. It’s the first time in a while that Monson has all of his players eligible at the start of the season.

"It’s the deepest team we’ve had," Monson said. "Right now, I have 11 guys that would play in a game and that’s something that we haven’t had."

Calendars are marked a Nov. 21 home game against Kansas State, but it’s March that The Beach really is looking toward.

"With me and Travis and everybody being here for summer and spring workouts, it just brings everybody closer," Lamb said. "I think now everybody is just used to playing with each other and we’re figuring how to play with each other."