At Monmouth, Confidence Oozes Up and (Very Far) Down the Roster

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 30th, 2015

There simply aren’t many teams in college basketball with a better trio of wins to this point than Monmouth, power conference or otherwise. The Hawks, picked to finish sixth in the MAAC, have already toppled UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, upset #17 Notre Dame in the AdvoCare Invitational and staved off USC to place third in the event. From a mid-major perspective, King Rice’s bunch simply owned the month of November. And yet, despite the spate of upsets and already-exceeded expectations, Monmouth’s achievements on the court have taken a backseat to its swagger directly off of it. You already know what we are talking about here: that bow-and-arrow-shooting, touchdown-tossing, feather-flapping, best-show-in-town bench mob of theirs. Not only have the antics been picked up by myriad blogs and news outlets around the country, they earned split-screen airtime during the team’s semifinal and third-place games over the weekend. But while the bench’s hilariousness and popularity is obvious and undeniable (the crew’s Twitter handle, @MonmouthBench, now has over 3,300 followers), its tangible connection to Monmouth’s on-court success deserves a deeper look. After all, what could be a better reflection of team culture than a bunch of no-names performing choreographed, multi-act celebration routines?

Daniel Pillari, Greg Noack and Monmouth's bench are taking college hoops by storm. (Getty Images)

Daniel Pillari, Greg Noack and Monmouth’s bench had some fun in November (Getty Images)

Make no mistake – the Hawks have talent, and their winning ways are not altogether shocking. Diminutive point guard Justin Robinson, a 5’8” preseason first-team all-conference pick, ranks sixth nationally in scoring (24.4 PPG) and racked up 77 combined points over the holiday weekend on his way to being named the AdvoCare Invitational MVP. Junior Je’lon Hornbeak, once a four-star recruit, has been an immediate contributor since transferring from Oklahoma. So too has freshman Micah Seaborn, another highly-touted prospect who went for 20 points against USC on Sunday, including 4-of-8 shooting from behind the arc. Deon Jones (7.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG), Collin Stewart (11.0 PPG) and Chris Brady (7.2 PPG) are all upperclassmen who have developed into solid players during their time in West Long Branch. This team is built to compete. Yet, Rice, a former North Carolina point guard under Dean Smith, seemed to suggest before the season that the toughness-based culture change he sought to create in 2012 has only now come to fruition because of his decision to loosen things up. “I think I understand the position probably more than when I first started, I learned everything doesn’t have to be my way or the highway type of deal,” he told the Asbury Park Press in mid-November.

And perhaps that’s where the bench mob comes in, led by walk-ons Dan and Louie Pillari (cousins), freshman Tyler Robinson and injured forward Greg Noack. Rice’s willingness to trust his starters to deliver on the court – Monmouth never wavered from its game plan against UCLA, despite trailing by 13 in the second half – all while giving his bench-warmers uninhibited creative freedom on the sidelines, embodies the culture of self-assuredness and cohesion he has sought to build during his tenure. “Those guys are creative. They’re having fun, they’re a fun group of kids, so I encourage all of it,” Rice said over the weekend. And why not? The effects of the mob’s energy are often palpable. When Jones threw down a monster slam late in the contest against USC, any mojo lost during the Trojans’ second half comeback was fully recaptured by an eruption of mind-blown bench antics. Numerous shots by Robinson throughout the tournament seemed to both feed and be fed by the guys on the pine, a self-fulfilling feedback loop of confidence. Big plays on the hardwood may light the fire, but the bench helps keep it blazing. “They give us a lot of entertainment, confidence and there’s a swagger about them,” Robinson said on Monday.

Their work, of course, is far from done. Now garnering votes in both the AP and Coaches polls for the first time in program history and approaching the top 100 in KenPom, Monmouth suddenly looks like a bona fide MAAC title contender and potential March threat. The team’s offense – which has generally been a step behind its defense during Rice’s tenure – appears more capable and consistent than ever with Robinson, Seaborn and Hornbeak leading the charge. The Hawks currently rank ninth nationally in turnover rate, shoot better than 38 percent from deep and get to the free throw line at a very healthy clip. With conference play starting and a trip to Georgetown still on the docket this month, Monmouth has a chance to generate even more national buzz and put itself in even better position should it reach the NCAA Tournament this spring. It’s a possibility that, if it plays out, would turn One Shining Moment into one awesome bench montage.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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