What a difference a year can make. After finishing eighth in the Big West last season with an atrocious 6-25 overall record including only three wins in conference, a much improved Long Beach State team (7-7 overall, 2-0 in the Big West) has made great strides this season as it looks to return to prominence. Already with one win more than they had last year at the midway point in the season, Long Beach appears primed to leap back into Big West tournament contention.

“Nothing has really changed with our approach this year,” senior guard Donovan Morris said. “One big difference is that we have more athletes that can make plays and create match-up problems.”

The abundance of athletes this year comes courtesy of a strong freshman class for the 49ers, headed by guards Casper Ware and Larry Anderson along with forward T.J. Robinson. The 5-foot-9 Ware, in particular, has been effective in drawing attention away from Morris, handling the ball at the point guard spot with an average of 3.5 assists per game, good for fourth in the Big West.

“Casper is fast but also surprisingly strong for a little guy, so he can get inside instead of having to settle for the shot all the time,” Morris said.

Another key to Long Beach’s development has been the addition of a specialty long-range shooter, junior guard Stephan Gilling. The transfer from Colorado State is currently second in the Big West with an average of nearly three 3-pointers a game, with 40 of his 45 field goals coming from beyond the arc. Despite his soft touch from distance, Gilling has also brought a defensive presence to a team that has struggled to contain opponents from the field.

“Steph’s defense is definitely the most important element of his game,” Morris said. Both him and Larry Anderson come in everyday with their hardhats and D-up the other team’s best players.”

With all the new talent at second year Head Coach Dan Monson’s disposal, the 49ers can no longer be classified as the Donovan Morris show. However, the explosive veteran has continued his dominance as one of, if not the top offensive player in the Big West. After leading the league in scoring in the 2007-08 season at 21 points per game, Morris picked up right where he left off in his senior campaign, scoring at will to lead Long Beach to an early 4-2 record.

“Donovan is a great team guy, and he’s still adjusting to have all these guys around him,” Monson said. “Bottom line, he will do anything to win.”

Monson’s words could not be truer looking at the 49er’s back-to-back nonconference wins back in November. Morris sank two free throws at the end of overtime to secure a 73-69 upset over Weber State, and followed that up with a couple clutch threes in double overtime three days later at Idaho State to wrap up an 88-82 win.

“Everyone can do their thing, but the other players have faith in me to come through when the game’s on the line,” Morris said.

After the team reached an unthinkable four wins by early December, things took a turn for the worse. The team went winless in a three-game road trip away from Walter Pyramid Gym, and Coach Monson was visibly upset with the team’s overall performance. “We’ve shown glimpses of being ready to compete at this level but our road record really shows our inconsistencies,” Monson said.

The 49er’s freefall came to a climax when they returned home after losing their final game of the trip to nationally ranked Syracuse, as they were blown out by a Montana State team while recording a season high in turnovers. Morris, who could not find his stroke throughout the losing streak, came off the bench for only his second time in a Long Beach uniform, scoring only six points while accounting for four of the team’s 19 giveaways. Their first and only loss at home to this point no doubt marked the low point of the season for both Morris and the 49ers.

“As a team, we just lost something,” Morris said. “My intensity in games and practice just wasn’t there so Coach [Monson] made the move to have me come off the bench.”

Whether it was the benching that sparked him, or if it was simply a turn around in mentality, Morris returned to form in the team’s next game versus heavily favored 2008 Atlantic-10 champion Temple. The senior leader dropped 23 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, and added 5 assists in a triumphant return to the starting lineup as the 49ers took down the Owls at home in perhaps the greatest upset involving a Big West team this year.

“It was a quality win for us and the league,” Monson said. “They came back and played their best game in my tenure 48 hours after probably our worst loss this season.”

Monson, known for rejuvenating basketball programs in jeopardy, did not let his team slack after the uplifting victory, continuing to push his team and not let them get caught up in the glory on the brink of conference play.

“He [Monson] pushes us to the limit, holding practices everyday cause even when we beat a team there are always things we could have done better,” Gilling said.

Monson’s tireless work ethic in combination with steadily improved output from the younger players has allowed Long Beach to begin conference play with a flawless 2-0 record, defeating both UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly. However, with a shaky defense and the worst team free throw percentage in the league (65 percent), Monson is taking nothing for granted moving ahead in a Big West full of anxious contenders.

“I don’t want to sound doom and gloom but I’m a realist, and I know we’ve got a ways to go,” Monson said.