Long Beach State shows growth under Monson
Regardless of whether or not Long Beach State, the favorites this week in Anaheim and No. 1 seed in the Big West Conference tournament, defends its title and makes a return trip to the NCAA tournament, one thing is clear: Big West Coach of the Year Dan Monson has a nice thing going in Long Beach.
This season, Long Beach (18-12, 14-4) won its third straight Big West title and did it with almost a completely different team. But the only returning starter, James Ennis, emerged as one of the most dominant players in the conference, as evidenced by his Big West Player of the Year award, and a handful of Division I transfers filled in some of the holes around him and sophomore point guard Mike Caffey.
“It’s been a little bit different but I am proud that were able to get it together in stretches,” Monson said. “It meant a lot to these kids to win the league, and to me, so it feels really good to be on top.”
The Beach has gained notoriety in recent years under Monson that was never seen under previous coaches.
Last season, the 49ers went 25-9 and 15-1 in the Big West. They knocked off two top-25 teams and nearly had two other upsets on the home floors of North Carolina and Kansas, two of the most difficult places to play in the country. Casper Ware was a Bob Cousy Award finalist and a slew of other talented seniors took Long Beach to its first NCAA tournament since 2007.
The program has fully adapted and effectively promoted the “Beach” theme, with a creative floor design and flashy uniforms that have created somewhat of a West Coast identity. It’s uniquely So Cal and uniquely Long Beach, and it all started with the hiring of Monson in 2007.
Long Beach’s 2006-07 NCAA tournament season ended somewhat unceremoniously when the 49ers were blown out by Tennessee in the first round of the tournament. Then-head coach Larry Reynolds was under fire already for violations that had been uncovered by the NCAA toward the end of the regular season and it was largely known that his contract, up at the end of the season, would not be renewed.
Monson had been exiled by Minnesota after a few disappointing seasons. But the former architect of Gonzaga was well-versed in the art of a rebuild and doing so with the limitations of penalties.
He endured a rough first season, suffering through a 6-25 campaign. Shooting guard Donovan Morris carried the team, pouring in the buckets while everyone around him struggled to keep up.
But the next season, The Beach greatly improved. And the season after that, the 2009-10 season, the 49ers were playing in the Big West championship game.
Fans began to return to the Walter Pyramid and returned in droves. Attendance numbers went up so much so that the student section was moved from behind the sidelines to behind the baseline.
“The student interest under Monson has increased so much that we really needed a spot to put the students all together and give them one unified voice,” said Long Beach State New Media/Video Coordinator Dale Johnson. “Thus we moved them to the end zone section. They gained more than 400 seats in the new section.”
Johnson, a Long Beach State alum, watched the “Maniacs” – the student section – grow from just a couple hundred students in gold tie-died shirts to a section that now looks like those of the bigger programs The Beach is trying to emulate: Fans dressed in costumes, painted faces, signs and a loud, proud, black and gold group.
“We broke the all-time student record this year at the Fullerton game with 2,073 students in attendance and a good majority were able to fit in the end zone section, making for a crazy environment.”
This season, Monson was able to do something that few mid-major programs are able to do when he lured North Carolina to Long Beach. The Tar Heels visited the Pyramid in November and a nationally-televised audience watched a record-setting crowd of 6,912. Even UNC head coach Roy Williams said the atmosphere had a big-game feel to it.
This particular Big West Championship didn’t come without its share of adversity. The difficulties of losing four starters and integrating four new transfers, three at mid-season, were well-chronicled. Caffey in particular had the most difficult task of replacing not only one of the best players to come out of Long Beach but also his close friend and mentor in Ware. But he effectively stepped out of his shadow, becoming the leader the team needed.
“It was kind of hard at the beginning when he left. I was his roommate every trip, every road game. I still talk to him every day,” Caffey said. “Every time I do have a game I might hear, ‘That was a nice Casper Ware jump shot,’ or something like that. But I’m kind of over that. It’s me now.”
Ware, along with former players Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps will still carry respect in the Long Beach State locker room and Ennis’ name is likely to do the same after this season ends. They were special players that helped build The Beach into what it is today.
But going forward in the future, The Beach is built to last. All-conference players Caffey, Tony Freeland and Keala King will be back along with center Dan Jennings and former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb will also be eligible mid-season next year.
“Tyler is a great player. He’ll probably fill James’ shoes. He’s a great player and he’ll help out a lot,” Caffey said. “Next year, it’s going to be great.”
Whether or not Long Beach State cuts down the Honda Center nets Saturday night, Monson has this program poised to be a contender for years to come.