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Big West Conference: The rise and fall of Long Beach State 49ers basketball

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Long Beach State hasn't had much success since a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, and after back-to-back losing seasons 49er fans are becoming as anxious as ever.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been over 3 years since Long Beach State’s "Fab 4" of Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson, and Eugene Phelps last suited up in 49er uniforms, and the program has yet to see the same success without them.

In 2012, the Fab 4 led Long Beach State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance under head coach Dan Monson, who was in his fifth season with the 49ers. Since then Monson has surpassed late Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian for the most wins as a head coach in Long Beach State history, but there hasn’t been another appearance in the big dance for the 49ers.

Three Years Ago

It was a given that Long Beach State would need some time to rebuild after losing the Fab 4, but I don’t think any 49er fan envisioned the rebuilding process taking this long. Hopes were high for the 2012-2013 season when the Beach brought in transfers Dan Jennings (West Virginia), Keala King (Arizona State), and Tony Freeland (DePaul), to go along with forward James Ennis (now of the Miami Heat).

The 49ers were unquestionably the most talented team in the conference, and proved so by winning a third consecutive Big West regular season title. But the team regressed down the stretch losing three of its final four games leading into the conference tournament. In the Big West tournament the 49ers fell to UC Irvine in the semifinals ending any hope of heading to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.

Because Long Beach State won the regular season title they were an automatic bid into the NIT for the second time under Coach Monson. That’s when everything began to change.

It was the third season in a row the 49ers were playing in a postseason tournament, a sign that the program was trending upward, but that wasn’t the case. The 49ers drew Baylor in the NIT first round and probably should have never boarded the flight to Waco.

Baylor put up 112 points en route to a 46-point win, officially ending the 49ers season. Collapse? Maybe, but it was the off the court issues that sent the team spiraling downward in 2013. Monson called them the "least competitive team" he had ever coached, and with that came some wholesale changes as well. The "super transfers", Keala King and Tony Freeland, were dismissed, along with promising freshman Deng Deng. The retooling of the team turned into the rebuilding of the team and put Long Beach State in quite the hole for the 2013-2014 campaign.

Two Years Ago

The 49ers were forced to bring in a slew of junior college transfers to replace the three players that had been dismissed, and the transition was not easy. After a 1-9 start to the season, UCLA-transfer Tyler Lamb became eligible in late December and played the role of "savior" leading the 49ers to three straight victories before conference play.

It was an up and down conference slate for the 49ers who finished third at 10-6, right around where most expected. Long Beach State was far from the favorite heading into the conference tournament, but after the top two seeds were knocked off while the 49ers stayed alive, many felt it was a gift-wrapped opportunity for the 49ers to return to the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately that talk lasted all of about two hours as the 49ers lost to Cal State Northridge in the semis, putting an end to the season. It was just the second time under Dan Monson that the Beach had finished under .500, but it wasn’t all that shocking considering all of the changes the program had undergone personnel wise in the offseason.

This Season

Then there was the season that ended Mar. 12, a season full of expectations that once again fell apart down the stretch. This was a season in which Long Beach possessed what many believed to be the best backcourt in the Big West, consisting of Mike Caffey and Tyler Lamb. Little did we know this one was doomed from the start.

Like Kobe needed Shaq, and Jordan needed Pippen, Caffey needed Lamb, but the former UCLA Bruin never found his rhythm. After serving a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules to begin the season, Lamb never seemed to get comfortable in the offense and the numbers proved it. After averaging 15.4 points per game the previous season, Lamb averaged just 8.3 ppg during 2014-15, finding himself in and out of the starting lineup in conference play.

As a fan it was tough to see Lamb not do what he had hoped to accomplish in his senior season and it’s hard to put a finger on exactly why things did not work out. Perhaps it was the suspension, the sky high expectations, or nagging injuries that had kept him out in the past. Whatever it was it wasn’t the season 49er fans had envisioned out of Lamb or the team. Despite spectacular seasons from seniors David Samuels and Caffey, it was the meat and bones of conference play that did the 49ers in once again in 2015.

After a 7-1 start in the Big West, all it took was a last second loss at home to UCI to send the team into a funk they never really snapped out of. On Feb. 7, the day the season essentially ended for Long Beach State.

The 49ers would go onto lose four more games in a row after the loss to UCI and it took a home beat down of Cal State Fullerton to end the five-game skid. The win sparked a three-game winning streak to close out the regular season again at 10-6, but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of confidence heading into the conference tournament.

The 49ers fell this time in the quarterfinals, to Hawaii. It wasn’t a lack of effort that sent the Beach packing early, as the seniors played inspired basketball even in defeat. It was just that Long Beach State had peaked after a 7-1 start in the Big West. The 49ers were unable to adjust to the adjustments other teams made down the stretch and it cost them.

The Mike Caffey era has come to an end at Long Beach State and the 49ers also say goodbye to stellar seniors David Samuels, Eric Mcknight, Mckay Lasalle, and Tyler Lamb. Back-to-back seasons under .500 is what it’s come to, something not too many fans saw coming after the 2012 NCAA Tournament appearance.

Go ahead and blame the struggles of the past two seasons on the dismissals of Keala King, Tony Freeland and Deng Deng, because in reality that is what has held the program back from being what fans had envisioned it to be after 2012. Dan Monson wants this program to be the next Butler or Wichita State; he wants the nation to wake up every morning and know about Long Beach State basketball.

Looking Forward

The 2015-16 season will be make or break for the 49ers. Look at it as the first season since 2012 because the past three seasons have not been part of the plan. There are no excuses in 2015-2016, with high-major transfers Gabe Levin (Marquette, Loyola Marymount), Nick Faust (Maryland), and Roschon Prince (USC) entering the fold for Long Beach State, in addition to all of the talent the 49ers return in the fall. Expectations will be sky high again for Long Beach State come November and if the 49ers aren’t playing some postseason basketball in 2016, it could mean a world of trouble going forward at the Beach.