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Big West Preview: Revamped Long Beach State takes aim at another league title

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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James Ennis hopes to lead Long Beach State to another Big West crown (US Presswire)

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 25 league, the Big West.

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Even though Long Beach State graduated the best senior class the Big West has produced in at least a decade, it won't be easy for another team to unseat the two-time defending regular season champs.

An influx of promising transfers and the return of some capable veterans gives the 49ers a chance to reload rather than rebuild despite the departure of conference player of the year Casper Ware and standouts Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps.

Senior James Ennis will have the opportunity to emerge as a go-to perimeter threat after showing promise last year as a complementary scorer and lockdown defender. Sophomore Michael Caffey should assume the role of starting point guard after averaging 5.9 points, 2.2 assists as Ware's understudy last season. And those two will receive plenty of help in the paint from 6-10 West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings and at the other forward spot from 6-7 DePaul transfer Tony Freeland.

Maybe the most accomplished of Long Beach State's transfers, however, is guard Keala King, a former top 100 recruit who averaged a team-high 13.7 points through 13 games as a sophomore at Arizona State before leaving the program. King won't be available during much of Long Beach State's grueling non-league schedule, but he'll join the team in mid-December and should be integrated into the rotation by the start of league play.

"Our goal is to always challenge in the Big West, and I think the talent is there," Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. "There's a lot of individual talent, but is there a team? When you have that many transfers, they came for themselves. They left for personal reasons, they come to you as individuals and they've got to buy into what makes the team successful. So I know there's enough talent to contend and now it's my job to get them on the same page."

If Long Beach State's newcomers don't mesh with the returners or the veterans struggle in a leadership role, there are several teams capable of taking advantage.

Cal State Fullerton has a new coach and a revamped roster, but the one-two punch of guards D.J. Seeley and Kwame Vaughn make the Titans dangerous. Big West newcomer Hawaii also will be a threat because of its strong frontcourt led by Vander Joaquim and its unique home-court advantage.

MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Dylan Royer, Cal Poly
Best playmaker: Kwame Vaughn, Cal State Fullerton
Best defender: James Ennis, Long Beach State
Coach on the rise: Dan Monson, Long Beach State
Coach on the hot seat: Bobby Braswell, Cal State Northridge
Three must-see games: 1. North Carolina at Long Beach State, Nov. 16 (Rare visit from a national power); 2. Hawaii at Diamond Head Classic (Warriors host Miami in the quarterfinals) 3. Long Beach State at UCLA, Dec. 18 (The last time the 49ers played the Bruins, they beat them in 2009)

FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Andy Newman, Cal State Fullerton (Interim coach, assistant to Bob Burton for nine seasons)
Regular-season winner last season: Long Beach State
Tourney winner last season: Long Beach State
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 26th; 2010-11: 25th, 2009-10: 19th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2005, Pacific as a No. 8 seed in first round

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Atlantic Sun (No. 26): Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads South Carolina Upstate's resurgenceWhich team will capitalize on Belmont's departure?

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgenceCoastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for LamarOral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league

America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series runEarly departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk StateSavannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year offBalanced league will crown new champ this year

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