The whistle dangling from a string around his neck, like many of the faces on the Long Beach State practice floor, was something new for Coach Seth Greenberg. He doesn't use one much, but there have been times this fall that he felt he needed it to make a point.
Just how sharp the 49ers will be is really up in the air. Greenberg doesn't like to call it a rebuilding season, but he has to replace three starters who accounted for nearly 50 points and 18 rebounds a game on last season's 22-10 team that won the Big West Conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 17 years.
Gone is guard Lucious Harris, a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks who is the Big West's all-time scoring leader. Forward Bryon Russell was a first-round pick of the Utah Jazz and 6-foot-10 center Chris Tower is playing in Sweden.
The front court concerns Greenberg most. Mike Atkinson, a 6-7 junior center who averaged fewer than 14 minutes a game last season, is expected to start at forward, as is junior Terrance O'Kelley. The 6-7 O'Kelley, who got limited playing time last season, made the dramatic jump shot from the right baseline with four seconds to play that gave Long Beach a 79-77 upset victory over Nevada Las Vegas in a 1993 Big West tournament semifinal.
Other potential front-court players include 6-7 Tim Caviezel, a transfer from Washington who can also play shooting guard; 6-6 sophomore Juaquin Hawkins, who sat out the last two seasons; 6-6 sophomore Eric Brown, a converted guard who played sparingly in 18 games last season; 6-8 transfer Gerry Branner from Belleville (Ill.) Community College, and 6-9 transfer Bart Gijbels from Western Nebraska Community College. Gijbels is recovering from a knee injury and could be sidelined for two months.
"We don't really have a center," Greenberg said. "Most of the time, we'll go with three guards and two forwards."
The fast-breaking 49er backcourt, led by senior point guard Jeff Rogers, looks promising. The other returning starter is 6-5 senior swingman Rod Hannibal, a streaky three-point shooter who averaged 11.9 points a game in 1992-93.
Brian Camper, a 6-5 senior and last season's sixth man, is projected to start in the three-guard attack, but could move to forward. He led the team in assists with 3.5 a game last season. Redshirt junior Tyrone Mays has looked good in exhibition play and Brown can play in the backcourt, too.
Greenberg begins his fourth season with a 51-39 record.
"I don't care about where the team is now, but where it will be in March," he said. "It will be a learning process."
Maybe looking to the future isn't such a bad idea. A year from now, he will have a pair of highly recruited high school redshirts, a third who is sitting out a Prop. 48 year and 6-10 Joe McNaull, an All-Western Athletic Conference center who transferred from San Diego State. The school's new campus arena is also scheduled to open in late 1994.