Men's basketball season preview
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 9, 2012 19:11
The Long Beach State men’s basketball team will take the court Saturday afternoon with one goal in mind: creating a path back to the Big Dance in March.
The 2012-13 installment will look much different from last year’s squad, which featured seven seniors. Its ultimate goal to defend its Big West Conference championship, however, looks very similar.
Head coach Dan Monson said the team will begin to discover its identity as the season progresses and players become more comfortable with one another.
“This is a very defining year in our program,” he said. “Can we defend losing four starters or not? Our goal every year is to win the Big West championship and go to the NCAA tournament. This will be a challenging year to do that, but that’s our goal and that’s our expectation.”
The Beach will count on its few returning players to lead its efforts this year. The backcourt tandem of senior forward James Ennis and sophomore point guard Mike Caffey will be relied on to set the example on and off the court, and several transfers, including former Arizona State Sun Devil Keala King and Dan Jennings of West Virginia, will look to make significant contributions down the stretch.
Nothing has been set in stone however, not even the starting lineup for the quickly-approaching season opener against North Alabama. Monson said the game against the Lions would be used to evaluate the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Any first game is always scary because we don’t know what to expect,” he said. “We don’t know much about them, and obviously we don’t know much about ourselves. We’re not really worried about who’s starting on Saturday, we’re just worried about who plays well and getting five guys on the same page.”
The Beach will need its starting five to get on the same page in a hurry if it hopes to be competitive during the nonconference portion of its season. The 49ers will be tested early and often, as they will face five preseason top 25 teams in their first 11 games.
After taking on the Lions and Southern California to start its season, LBSU will host No. 11 North Carolina on Nov. 16 in what will be arguably its biggest nonconference home game in recent history. Immediately following the marquee matchup with the Tar Heels, the ‘Niners will travel to Arizona to face the twelfth-ranked Wildacts. Later on, they will go on the road once again to face No. 9 Syracuse, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 13 UCLA.
“The thing about playing great competition is it exposes your weaknesses,” Monson said. “If you play inferior competition, you have a false sense of security, and I don’t think we’ll have that coming out of our preseason. I think we’ll know exactly where we are and what we have to do to be successful.”
Monson’s thoughts appear to be shared by the media, as the 49ers were picked to repeat as Big West champions in the preseason media poll. They received 13 of 21 first place votes and finished 30 points ahead of second-place Cal State Fullerton. UC Irvine, Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara rounded out the top five.
Earning preseason All-Big West honors was Ennis, the team’s only returning starter.
“[The recognition] changes things a lot,” he said. “I was unknown last year because I was just playing my role, but this just makes me want to keep working harder.”
Both LBSU and North Alabama will be taking the court with inexperienced lineups when the season tips off at 3:05 p.m. at the Walter Pyramid. The Lions lost their three top scorers from last season, including rebounds leader Theron Jenkins, whose 16.1 points per game ranked second on the team. North Alabama finished the year 15-12 and 7-7 in the Gulf South Conference.
This year, the Lions will likely look to Community College transfer Bruce Adams for the majority of its offense. Adams led North Alabama in points, minutes and field goal attempts during an exhibition game over the weekend.
Players to Watch:
James Ennis (senior): After finishing fourth on the team in scoring (10 points per game) during the 2011-12 campaign, the 6-foot-6 wing is primed to lead the ‘Niners offensively. Ennis’ length, speed and versatility keep him disruptive in the passing lanes. He was second on the squad in blocks and steals as a junior.
Mike Caffey (sophomore): Caffey averaged 5.9 points and 2.2 assists per game as a freshman in just under 22 minutes per night. He is set to start at point guard, where he will take over for two-time defending Big West player of the year Casper Ware.
Nick Shepherd (sophomore): Dubbed by Monson last season as an integral part of the future of the program, Shepherd didn’t see much playing time as a freshman because of the team’s depth and experience. But with big men T.J. Robinson, Eugene Phelps and Edis Dervisevic all gone and graduated, Shepherd is bound to take-on a much more significant role down low in his sophomore campaign.
Dan Jennings (junior transfer, West Virginia): The 6-foot-9 forward gives the Beach size on the baseline alongside Shepherd. Jennings shot 54 percent from the field in two years at West Virginia, where he spent most of his time contributing from the bench. He earned NCAA tournament experience in 2011, when he and the Mountaineers advanced to the second round before falling to Kentucky.
The ‘Niners have 11 nonconference matches on their schedule before Big West play begins Dec. 29. They will also appear on television a minimum of 13 times this year.