Dream Chaser

Point guard Mike Caffey wants to bring the Beach back to the Dance.
by November 06, 2014

At this time roughly three years ago, Casper Ware was preparing for his senior season at Long Beach State.Ware was the reigning Big West Conference Player of the Year. His name was littered across the program’s record books. But there was one glaring omission. He’d never gone dancing, DI-style.

So 49ers coach Dan Monson challenged him. Do you want to be the best point guard in program history never to make the NCAA Tournament?

The star point guard responded with aplomb. To describe the dedication shown during that final summer, Monson created an appropriate descriptor. It was a “Casper Ware offseason.” As a senior, Ware once again took home Big West Player of the Year honors. He became a national sensation when he torched Pitt, at Pitt, to the tune of a then career-high 28 points. It was just the third time the Panthers had lost a non-conference home game. Even LeBron took note of the feat, tweeting, Casper Ware a problem out there!

Game recognize game. But plaudits be damned, the most important thing for Ware remained that, once March had rolled around, he got the 49ers into the NCAA Tournament.

Legacy: sealed.

Now, there was another guard on that ’11-12 Beach team—this one a freshman blur with a work ethic to match. Mike Caffey became a key player for Monson that season, and started the final four games after Larry Anderson, a 6-5 senior guard, suffered an injury to his right knee.

During his recruitment, Monson had told Caffey, a coveted prospect from Centennial High, in nearby Corona, that he could be a three-year starter. As a freshman, however, he’d come into a team with some serious seniors on hand—most notably Ware.

Caffey didn’t bristle at that. He found Monson’s no-frills approach refreshing. When he came for his visit, Ware was one of his hosts. So was Anderson, who ended up as one of the program’s leaders in steals. Caffey picked Long Beach State. “I knew I’d be behind big-time guards,” he says, “and I knew I could learn from them.”

Now, Caffey approaches his own senior season, and like Ware before him, there are some splinters in his mind’s eye he’s dead set about mending. If you want personal accolades, here’s a few records within Caffey’s grasp. He could become:

– The fourth Beach player to earn three first-team all-conference selections.
– The fourth Beach player with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists.
– The third Beach Player with 1,000 points (he passed that mark last February 15) and 400 assists.

The 5-11 guard has a penchant for the clutch moment, too, hitting game-winners with startling frequency. And all that’s great. But just like Ware, Caffey knows there’s legacy at stake.

Since that freshman season with Ware leading the way, Caffey hasn’t been back to the NCAA Tournament. In ’14-15, he wants to take the 49ers back.

“We’re at the level where every year we’re expected to win the league and get to the NCAA Tournament, or it’s not a good season,” says Monson. “Two years ago, we won the league, but didn’t get to the Tournament. Last year wasn’t a disaster, but we didn’t win league; we didn’t get to the NCAA Tournament. To our minds, we didn’t accomplish anything.”

Speaking of last season. After winning their opener, the 49ers lost their next nine games. But just before Christmas, they began a surge, thanks to some serious reinforcements, in the form of UCLA transfer guard Tyler Lamb and freshman swingman Travis Hammonds. Both players officially joined Long Beach State on December 19, after the end of the fall semester.

But it wasn’t enough. The 49ers lost to Cal State Northridge in the conference tournament semifinals, finishing 15-17 for the season.

Caffey didn’t take long to begin preparing for ’14-15. He knew he’d have to make this summer count. So he rented an apartment with fellow senior teammates Lamb and AJ Spencer, and set about working. (Spencer will miss the ’14-15 season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament.)

Those three could most often be found in the gym, putting up jumpers until their arms felt sure to fall off.

“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder,” says Lamb, who averaged 15.4 points last season and was named Second-Team Big West. “Our goal every year is to get to the NCAA Tournament. So, many nights, when we were shooting, we’d talk about what we have to do. The Tournament is what we want to achieve.”

“They have that chip as a group,” says Monson. “And for us to get back to where we want to be, Mike needs to have a better year.”

Monson cites Caffey’s shooting percentages: chiefly, the 29 percent from three and 66 percent from the foul line.

Considering that Caffey led the 49ers in scoring (16.2 points), assists (4.3), steals (45) and 34.5 minutes per game on the way to earning First Team All-Big West honors for the second consecutive season, Monson’s verdict might sound harsh.

But then you hear Caffey’s own take.

This summer, it was hard to find Caffey outside of that gym. Ware and Anderson even came back to campus and worked out with him.

He made alterations to his shot, getting it, as Caffey puts it, “into a good groove.”

He keeps in frequent contact with Ware, and has studied the way his former mentor has carved out an NBA career. (Ware signed a three-year deal with the Sixers this summer.) “I try to match up my game with him,” Caffey says. “Seeing how he can score and do his thing, it gives me confidence.”

That includes leadership.

Caffey readily admits to being quiet, but he knows the 49ers’ hopes rest upon his ability to take the wheel. “I’m still learning about that,” he says, “but the coaches preach on me to become more of a vocal leader. They talk to me every day about getting guys on the same page.”

Caffey has always felt more comfortable leading by example, and Monson pointed to a practice in which Caffey, as is his habit, finished first in conditioning. In the weight room, he’s the strongest guy. “But he’s still too quiet on the court,” says Monson. “Ware was quiet too, but he got out of it and emerged into a very good leader. I challenged Casper as a senior, that his legacy was going to depend on getting to the NCAA Tournament, and he stepped up. Now, it’s Mike’s turn to get us to the NCAAs.”

It’s already taking hold. Asked about Caffey’s body of work this summer, Monson offers this description: He had a ‘Casper Ware’ offseason.”He worked really hard,” says Monson of Caffey. “He got in the gym and got shots up. It’ll pay dividends.”

Ware understood that for a point guard, stats come second. What you’re judged upon, in the end, is wins. So Ware became a master at taking the pulse of a game, figuring out what his team needed him to provide, and when.

Caffey’s taken note. Now, he’ll need to be at his best during Long Beach’s latest challenging non-conference slate. Consider a 10-day stretch in December that includes four true road games against Texas, St. John’s, Syracuse and Louisville. But Caffey’s used to that. He knows that come Big West play, Long Beach State will be battle-tested and ready to rock. Given the last time the Big West last received multiple bids in 2005, it’s a sound policy from Monson. Hopefully the experience builds into something damned resolute. Then, you make your run during conference.

“We feel like this is the deepest team we’ve had and one of the most skilled teams,” says Monson, who like Caffey hails the arrival of a very good freshman class. There are legacies at stake. As was once the case with Ware’s senior year. Lamb thinks we’ll see the best of Caffey.

“Mike’s played with and competed against the highest level of guards,” says Lamb. “He’s continued to show he’s one of the best point guards out there.”

Pretty soon, the country will take heed as well.