James Ennis was like the fifth Beatle on last season's Long Beach State basketball team, a back-beat junior in a Fab Four senior lineup led by lead slinger Casper Ware.
"It was fun playing for that group," Ennis said this week. "Everyone had a role. Mine was to be coachable and to be a good teammate."
Those days are over, as Ennis is now Long Beach's give-me-the-rock star. The 6-foot-7 senior guard-forward was chosen Big West player of the year after leading his team to its third consecutive regular season title.
Ennis, averaging 17 points and seven rebounds, is one of the star attractions in the Big West tournament beginning Thursday at the Honda Center. Long Beach (18-12 overall, 14-4 in conference play) opens quarterfinal play at 6 p.m. against Cal State Fullerton (14-17, 6-12).
The winner of Saturday night's title game will earn the conference's automatic bid into next week's NCAA tournament.
Long Beach State is favored to repeat as champion, but not nearly as feared as last season's team led by two-time Big West player of the year Ware and fellow seniors Larry Anderson, Eugene Phelps and T.J. Robinson.
Those 49ers finished 25-9, 15-1 in Big West play in a season that ended with an early NCAA knockout loss to New Mexico.
This year's bid to the NCAA tournament should be much more of a bar fight.
"I can't remember a more open situation than this," Coach Dan Monson said.
That isn't just front-runner gamesmanship. The four schools seeded below Long Beach in the field — Pacific, Cal Poly, Irvine and Hawaii — have defeated the 49ers. Long Beach limps into the Honda Center having lost three of its last four games.
"This team doesn't seem to handle success very well," Monson said.
Pacific is motivated to win for longtime Coach Bob Thomason, who is retiring after 25 seasons in Stockton. Irvine is a veteran team that has won six of its last seven games and is two victories shy of its first 20-win season since 2002-03. UC Davis has Corey Hawkins, the league's leading scorer at 20.9 points per game. UC Santa Barbara boasts Alan Williams, a big-time big man. Cal Poly owns a huge road win this season over Pac-12 Conference champion UCLA. Hawaii scorched Long Beach by 21 points in Honolulu in early February.
"There won't be a surprise winner of any game, I think," Hawaii Coach Gib Arnold said of the Big West tournament.
There has been reduced buzz on Long Beach but not on Ennis, who emerged from a complementary shadow figure into a talked-about NBA prospect.
Lanky and athletic, the junior college transfer from Ventura got lost last season behind the senior class.
"He was confused," Monson said. "He said, 'I don't know what I'm really supposed to do here.' I said 'James, you're doing what you need to do. You need to just come in here and defer a little bit. … We needed an unselfish player to come in and blend with those four players and he certainly fit that bill."
Ennis, as a junior, averaged 10 points and four rebounds. He added 15 to 20 pounds of muscle over the summer in advance of taking on an increased load.
"He's a complete player; he's a stud," Cal State Fullerton Coach Andy Newman said. "He's one of those guys that can score in a lot of different ways … he does everything."
Ennis is soft-spoken and not the rah-rah type, but Monson told his lone-star senior it was his time to lead.
It was up to Ennis and sophomore guard Mike Caffey to navigate Long Beach through a brutal nonconference schedule before the mid-season arrival of transfers Keala King (Arizona State) and Tony Freeland (DePaul).
"It was hard because, before they came, we didn't have a strong bench," Ennis said of King and Freeland, who sat out the first 11 games.
The difference now?
"Talent," Ennis said. "We've got a lot of talent on the floor. We're a lot bigger and faster."