Mid-Major Top 20 Preview: Long Beach State 49ers

Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

In baseball there is the concept of the challenge trade, a swap of players that maybe haven't panned out the way we expected, and the new teams are basically challenging each other to make it work. Sports Illustrated writer Joe Sheehan recently called the swap between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox the ultimate challenge trade.

This wasn't because of the players involved necessarily, but it was about the entire concept of how you constructed your team. The Dodgers were going to take on the big contracts and see if they could win with the bulk of a big salary, while the Red Sox were shedding salary and seeing if they could go back to building from within, on a lower budget.

In Sheehan's view, the two teams had essentially swapped philosophies.

So what has this to do with our next Top 20 program, the Long Beach State 49ers? They have essentially adopted the team construction method that Bob Huggins once employed at Cincinnati: when your stars graduate, grab some transfers and keep the experience on the floor, while augmenting with a few recruits. Even better, the 49ers have a transfer from West Virginia, Huggins' new playground.

How will this work? We continue our look at the top 20 programs from last season's MRI with Long Beach State.

We have spent some time on Long Beach State before, back when Casper Ware was still an NBA Draft prospect before he settled for a spot on a roster in Italy.

Our review wasn't exactly kind. There were two players on the 49ers rosters that were more valuable that top scorer Ware. Plus his defense left a lot to be desired from a numerical standpoint, even if that was what sometimes made scouts stand up and say 'Wow'. Those two players -- Larry Anderson and T.J. Robinson -- are gone, and so is Ware, leaving Long Beach State in a bit of a hole.

But they are only that first bit of the massive pit that you can see when you peer over the edge. Of 12 players who saw time for the 49ers last season, only four remain. Of those, only senior James Ennis is both an upperclassmen and saw significant floor time for Long Beach.

Ennis was the fourth most valuable player last year with a HOOPWAR of 1.65, a number that will likely improve greatly given the weight he will have to take on his shoulders with the departure of last season's leaders. He already had 10 points per game, on almost 50 percent shooting, to go along 4.1 rebounds from the guard position and a total of 54 steals on the year -- second best on the team. His DEF100 of 8.90 is well above average and should come in handy this year as the 49ers face a difficult non-conference slate.

The real trick will be how Ennis and all of the newcomers work together. He will likely be taking the floor with Dan Jennings, the aforementioned West Virginia transfer, and Tony Freeland, who comes over from DePaul. Once the year turns over those three could be joined by Keala King, who in another transfer from Arizona State.

Dan Monson has essentially rebuilt the team with players that didn't see significant time at major conference schools, or players that just needed that change of scenery. He is challenging himself to see if he can duplicate the success that he has seen before, and that Huggins had done at Cincinnati (albeit with more JUCO transfers, but the practice is the same).

There is no easy way to determine how this will work out, especially when you consider the schedule that is in front of Long Beach State before the Big West slate begins: USC, North Carolina, Arizona, a rebuilt Fresno State, Syracuse, Ohio State, and UCLA. That is like running through two NCAA Tournaments, starting at the Sweet 16. It is entirely possible that the 49ers will be double-digit underdogs in every single one of those games, considering only the North Carolina and Fresno games are at home.

Bottom Line: If Long Beach State can make it through the non-conference schedule with any bit of confidence left, they should still be among the favorites in the Big West. To consider them something different would be to dismiss the level of talent that they will display on the floor come conference season. There is still a strong challenge from Cal State Fullerton to deal with though, so it isn't exactly a walk in the park.

The biggest question is how soon Monson can get all of the new pieces to fit together into something that resembles a basketball team versus just a collection of random talent on the floor.

Last season barely met expectations, when Long Beach went to the NCAA Tournament, only to be eliminated in the first round. This year, there are no expectations, just a lot of questions around if assembling a team in this manner is feasible.

Monson has accepted the ultimate "challenge trade" in college basketball, and he will have his hands full trying to win it.

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