March 7, 2023 

Jeff Cammon has Long Beach State near the top of the Big West

Long Beach State has defied early expectations behind a combination of returners and transfers

The transfer portal. That’s it; that’s the sentence.

Every college basketball team has had to learn how to navigate it in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced an immediate eligibility situation for first-time transfers resulting in an explosion of players entering the transfer portal. Players who wished to transfer from one college to another used to have to redshirt a season unless circumstances showed reason to grant immediate eligibility, which was at the discretion of the NCAA.

The debate on whether or not the portal’s popularity is beneficial or not is currently ongoing. But there’s no question that some schools have benefitted from it and have been able to draw in players that they would normally not have access to. One of those teams is Long Beach State.

The Beach added ten new players for the 2022-23 season, with six of them transfers; Malia Bambrick from Pepperdine, Iyree Jarrett from Westmont in Division 2, Tori Harris from St. Bonaventure, Courtney Murphy from Seattle, Casey Valenti Paea from Buffalo and Sydney Woodley from Cal State Northridge.

So far, integrating so many new players has worked out well for Long Beach State and current Big West Coach of the Year Jeff Cammon. They recently had a 15-game win streak and are second in the Big West Conference standings with a 17-3 record. According to Cammon, the key to being able to have a successful season so far has been relationship building and the team committing early to get to know each other in a relatively short period of time.

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“The stronger the relationship, the more rapport you’ll have, the stronger you’ll be when you start to go through difficult situations. I think really understanding who we are on and off the basketball court was important,” Cammon told The Next. “Obviously the basketball, you’ve got to play yourself into great chemistry and getting to know one another. We played a lot of pickup as opposed to just drill. . .It’s not easy, you have to really commit yourself to buy into it. To the credit of the young ladies we had coming in, they’ve all committed to it, they’re putting in extra work with film sessions, talking to their teammates. . .the time that is needed to speed up that process, there’s not a lot of it, you have to be very efficient with it.”

One of the things though that has helped make Cammon’s job easier in terms of incorporating all the new additions is the support from his returning veterans. Out of the sixteen players on the roster, only six of them were a part of last season’s team. Of those six, four of them have been with the Beach longer than four years; Ma’Qhi Berry, Kristyna Jeskeova, Lauren Green and Kianna Hamilton-Fisher.

It’s a far cry in the days before the portal took off, where college teams tended to remain relatively intact with new freshmen replacing the departing seniors each season. The aforementioned quartet of upperclassmen have been instrumental in ensuring the team has gelled together on the court and that it’s been a smoother transition. Each of those players arrived at Long Beach State as freshmen and have remained ever since.

”You need your leaders, your young ladies who have been a part of the program for a long time to carry that on and off the court. Thank God and thank goodness that we have some really great young ladies who have been with me from the beginning,” Cammon said. “Just the ones that have been here four or five years, they’ve been through it. . .the leaders, they’re carrying on that narrative, they’re modeling what staying focused looks like and being consistent looks like.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the 2019-20 season, the Beach have improved each season. In 2020-21, they finished 11-7 in Big West Conference play and lost in the first round of the conference tournament. In 2021-22, they finished 12-6 in conference play and again lost in the first round of the conference tournament. They received an invite to the WNIT and lost in their opening game to Oregon State.

In a preseason coaches poll, Long Beach State was picked to finish in the top three of the conference. In the past couple of seasons, they’ve had some early success but were not able to sustain it. Last season they were 16-3 at one point, including both non-conference and conference play but finished the year on an inconsistent note going 3-4 over their last seven games and losing any momentum they had heading into postseason play.

During the 2020-21 season, the Beach had a ten-game win streak early in the season, only to follow that up with a seven-game losing streak in the heart of conference play to sink any chances they had at a solid postseason run.

This season things have been much more consistent and Cammon believes it stems from last season’s returners having a better understanding of what it takes to sustain a high level of play.

”I thought we just didn’t handle the expectations of having a target on your back and being a contender. . .we knew we lost our focus and we didn’t manage our expectations as well as we could have,” Cammon said. “Hopefully, our focus stays on being consistent with our habits and our process. . .the most glaring thing is making sure that our leadership understands that let’s learn from our past and let’s make sure that everyone understands that this is what it’s gonna take to continue to get better so that we can finish strong.”

It’s the consistency that has stood out for Cammon as the 2022-23 season comes to an end and the Big West Conference Tournament looming this week. And consistency on the defensive end of the court. The Beach finished fourth in the Big West in scoring with 62.5 points per game but finished second in the conference in opponents’ points per game at 56.8. Only UC Irvine has a better defensive mark holding opponents to 53.1 points. Long Beach State is also top four in the conference in opponents’ field goal percentage at 39 percent. They’re also forcing 20.1 turnovers per game which leads the conference.

From the newcomers to the veterans, Cammon has seen a willingness to put in the work each day since the beginning of the summer when this team first came together. He’s been impressed with the way the new additions have picked quickly picked things up, especially when it comes to defensive cohesiveness.

”The newbies are picking up our defensive philosophy, if there’s any area we’ve been strong in the last three years, it’s been our defense. . .they’ve come in and picked up our system,” Cammon said. “We just want to focus on each game, that’s how we got here. We have the potential to compete at the top of the conference, but obviously you have to prove that night and night out; you have to prove that every day. . .we’re excited that we’re in a position to reach one of our goals.”

The Big West Tournament begins this week, but Long Beach State will not play until Wednesday, March 8, as they have a bye into the next round. They will face off against the winner of the No. 7 and No. 10 matchup, either Cal Poly San Luis Obispo or UC Riverside.

While the Beach have some solid momentum heading into the tournament despite a loss to UC Davis on the final day of the regular season, there are some things Cammon would like to see addressed as the postseason gets underway. Long Beach State finished dead last in the Big West in rebounding. They were also at the bottom of the conference in free-throw attempts.

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“We have to rebound a lot better in order to have a chance to go further in the tournament. Offensively we have to shoot it well from the free-throw line but get to the free-throw line, just be more aggressive attacking the basket and our execution in general,” Cammon said. “Just improve in areas that we’re solid. I try to create more opportunities on the offensive end and also hold people to one shot. I know we turn people over pretty regularly and sometimes it balances out, but we can’t get dominated on the glass and expect to really, truly win a championship.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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