Long Beach State point guard Justin Bibbins has big game. In a breakout sophomore campaign, Bibbins averaged 12 points, 5 assists and 3.2 rebounds en route to All-Big West recognition for the 20-win 49ers.
Bibbins also has big aspirations for the 2016-’17 Long Beach State season.
“Coming off what we did last year, people didn’t expect us to do what we did,” he said of falling just four points shy of an NCAA Tournament berth. “We only lost two guys [from the 2015-’16 roster]. We have three, amazing freshmen coming in… Once we get the chemistry right, we’ll get things rolling.”
Rolling right to the Big Dance is the goal. The 49ers came oh-so-close a season ago, completing a run of 11 wins in 12 games with a berth in the Big West Championship Game. The 49ers led regular-season Big West champion Hawaii in stretches that night, too, paced in part by Bibbins’ 12 points and 8 assists, but ultimately fell to the Rainbow Warriors, 64-60.
“I think about those four points every day,” Bibbins said. “The biggest thing [for 2016-’17] is a championship. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Big describes so much of Bibbins’ presence on the court for Long Beach State — everything but his physical stature, anyway.
Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson noted Bibbins is one of, if not the smallest, starting point guard in Division I.
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Bibbins is a flyweight who packs a heavyweight punch. He sets the table for his 49er teammates with tremendous court vision, explodes past defenders with a quick first step and low dribble, and he can make opponents pay with his scoring ability.
“That’s what separates him from most small point guards. He’s a tremendous shooter… When you’ve got to guard a guy like that, and keep him in front of you, that’s where his uniqueness has come through.”
Such qualities shined through for Bibbins before his arrival at Long Beach State.
A standout at nearby Bishop Montgomery in Carson, Bibbins earned All-Los Angeles honors. He was a high 2-star recruit out of high school, and an early commit to Monson and the 49ers. He remained steadfast even as his profile grew, leading his prep teammates to a California Interscholastic Federation championship.
“When he committed here, the day he committed was just like the day he signed: We knew his word was good,” Monson said.
Remaining in the Southland was important to Bibbins, he said. The allure of having family in attendance for every home and many road, conference games appealed to Bibbins. So, too, did Long Beach State’s track record with point guards.
Bibbins follows in a tradition of standout No. 1s such as Casper Ware and Mike Caffey, star guards who excelled in black-and-gold both individually and as part of a team.
Monson also has been successful coaching smaller guards in the mold of Bibbins, which made the guard stand out as a prospect on the local recruiting scene.
“I’ve never worried about point guard because I’ve had great success [with smaller point guards],” he said.
“At Gonzaga, we had Quentin Hall, who was 5-8, 5-9, and took us to the Elite Eight and a basket away from the Final Four [in 1999].
“Casper Ware came in and put this program [Long Beach State] on the map, and he’s not 5-10. “I’ve always thought a point guard needed to be measured not by how tall they are, but how they run their team.”
Bibbins said “the biggest” mark he can make to match the legacy of those smaller guards before him is making an NCAA Tournament, a feat his predecessors accomplished. This season’s 49er squad has the makeup to do so, and according to Bibbins, gained the confidence to flourish over the course of the 2016-’17 campaign.
“Going into last year’s season, guys were timid: whether or not they could score, what their role was on this team,” Bibbins said. He was one of them.
Despite his prep success, Bibbins struggled to find playing time as a freshman. He backed up Caffey and played just 7.8 minutes per game.
Much of his struggle for minutes was due to Caffey’s presence as a veteran leader. Bibbins had some big changes to make in order to transition to the collegiate game.
Monson said Bibbins’ size was at “another level.” He arrived at Long Beach State around 130 pounds.
“With Justin, I was concerned that this was going a little too far, that he was a little too small for Division I,” Monson said. “It took four or five trips [to Bishop Montgomery] to see how tough he was, to see how good he was, and that it wasn’t going to matter.”
That freshman season provided Bibbins a steep learning curve, and one he called “a humbling experience.”
He shot just 32 percent from the floor and worse than 15 percent from 3-point range. After an understandably frustrating first year, Bibbins could have sought opportunity elsewhere.
Transferring was never an option, though. He had big plans for his local program, and the first school to offer him a scholarship.
To see his goals through, he put in work last offseason, then evolved over the course of his first campaign when given the reins at the college level.
Bibbins’ field-goal percentage jumped to 44 percent — both overall, and behind the 3-point arc. His long-range touch played an especially central part in Long Beach State’s resurgent play in the Big West. The guard connected on better than 50 percent of his 3-point attempts in conference.
His measurable contributions to the 49ers should jump further in the season to come. Bibbins could perhaps fill the void left by departing All-Big West swingman Nick Faust. Ultimately, though, Bibbins’ greatest role as a star for the 49ers can’t be measured.
He’ll assume a leadership role in Faust’s absence, and he has the presence to do so effectively — despite an 11-inch height disparity.
“Justin got where he is by being a fighter,” Monson said. “You can’t be his size and not have a really big heart and a lot of toughness. Those kind of kids are going to fight and battle, and that’s why you love having him.”