Last Year’s Media Darling Monmouth Is At It Again

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on December 5th, 2016

Early in the second half in Monmouth’s conference opener last Thursday night at Quinnipiac, Je’lon Hornbeak launched a rushed three-pointer early in the shot clock. Usually in the college basketball world, such an act is followed by a the response of a red-faced coach throwing his hands in the air or running down the bench to replace the trigger-happy perpetrator. King Rice was only a couple of feet away from Hornbeak upon the release, but there was no reaction from the sixth-year head coach. Not even an instinctive pained look or shaking of his head. Thirty seconds later, there was a different reaction — a nod of approval — as Hornbeak, this time a couple of feet closer and in rhythm, drilled a three-pointer in front of Rice. Monmouth, the MAAC favorite, went on to roll to its fourth straight victory. The good play continued over the weekend as the Hawks outlasted Canisius on Sunday.

Defending MAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson is back for another run. (SLAM)

Defending MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson is back for another run. (SLAM)

“We don’t really run plays. I have seniors,” Rice said. “We’ve been together for a long time. They know how I think; they know I want them to get it up quick. What do you do when you face a 1-3-1 and you’ve only had a chance to practice against it once? You just have to play basketball. Attack the gaps. If you just play, we have good players, they’ll find the holes.” By all rights, Monmouth should be one of the mid-majors anticipated to be “that” team in March, a veteran group that has tasted enough success to know that it is good enough despite not yet reaching the conference mountain top. But it’s a case of the been-there, done-that for 6-2 Monmouth. How come? Well, maybe there’s a bit of media fatigue on both sides. The Hawks raced to the frontal lobes of the national college basketball consciousness early last season — partially thanks to wins over UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, and Georgetown (yes, four of them) — but also with an entertaining style that included some wonderful improv theater from its bench after every big play.

All that led to the national stories, SportsCenter features and related predictions of how dangerous the Hawks would be in the NCAA Tournament. After the Selection Committee deemed that 27-7 was not good enough for an at-large bid, the Hawks instead ended their season in the NIT. This season, without a big non-conference win to their credit (Monmouth took currently unbeaten South Carolina to overtime), the nation’s eyes have turned elsewhere for its early mid-major darlings. And, to be fair, Monmouth hasn’t invited the attention. This year’s bench has limited itself to more conventional celebrations, and the Hawks have gone about their anonymous way like so many of the 351 Division I teams you never hear about. “It’s been a little strange because the spotlight was so bright last year,” Rice said. “I thought our kids handled it well because we had never been under that kind of scrutiny on a daily basis. We were under the spotlight last season, including our bench, more than I was at [North] Carolina (Rice, of course, played for the Tar Heels from 1987-91). Then we didn’t win on Monday night [MAAC final] so we didn’t get in. So maybe right now some other teams like Chattanooga or Arkansas State, some other mid-majors are doing it and the spotlight’s on them. So what I said to my guys is, ‘How about we just be the group that nobody’s paying attention to, and we just keep working and see how good we can get.’ If we keep getting better on defense with our numbers, we’re going to be hard to beat.”

Ironically, Monmouth returns almost everyone from last year’s team, starting with 5’8″ point guard Justin Robinson, the reigning MAAC Player of the Year. In what might be scary news for the rest of the league, Robinson got off to a slow start this season — scoring just 13.1 PPG and shooting a chilly 34.4 percent from the field — before exploding on Sunday for 28 points. In fact, the Hawks as a team were shooting only 30.4 percent from three-point range before dropping a 14-of-31 performance on Quinnipiac and 13-of-26 on Canisius. “We don’t want to hit a peak in January or February and then drop off a little like last year,” Robinson said. “Every day is about getting better.”

King Rice doesn't want his team to peak too early. A late run in March is what it's all about. (USA TODAY Sports)

King Rice doesn’t want his team to peak too early. A late run in March is what it’s all about. (USA TODAY Sports)

Monmouth has done nothing but get better under Rice over the last few seasons. In just his second season on campus, the Hawks finished 5-13 in the NEC and missed the conference tournament altogether. A step up to the MAAC loomed, and Rice — by his own admission — looked like he would be overmatched.But Robinson arrived the next season along with Josh James, shooter Collin Stewart and center Chris Brady. Austin Tilghman arrived the next year as Monmouth began its climb from the bottom. The final pieces arrived when Micah Seaborn came to the Jersey shore and brought with him Hornbeak, who had seen a decent amount of minutes at Oklahoma before transferring. Rice had started his coaching career as he had been coached, planning almost everything out in the half-court, sure that his players knew exactly where to go with the ball in every situation. But with a point guard like Robinson and his other veteran players, Rice had a bit of an epiphany: maybe less structure is better. And the results have spoken for themselves.

“Coach always gives us a lot of freedom,” Robinson said. “With that comes a lot of responsibility, so if we’re not playing right, everything is all on us. What he’s calling is never too tactical, it’s just about us making plays and finding an open man to get good shots.” Monmouth ranked 14th nationally in adjusted tempo last season and shot 36.6 percent from three-point range (75th), a far cry from Rice’s early days. The confidence he has in them is apparent. Stewart, a senior who is only 10th on the team in minutes played, came off the bench last week to hit all five of his three-point attempts. “I’ve been saying for a while I have a bunch of kids that can really shoot that you would not want them to get a look,” Rice said. “My problem is that I let everybody shoot when they feel open, so sometimes they come quick and it might not be the best shot for them. Tonight, though, we moved it around and truly shared the ball. If we get open looks, we’re going to make them.”

Defensively, Rice can employ a 6’10” space-eater in the middle in Brady, a luxury few MAAC teams have. When the Hawks faced a zone against Holy Cross, Brady scored 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Thanks to some hot shooting, Holy Cross (who went to the NCAA Tournament despite a 14-19 record) led Monmouth last week for most of the game thanks to 14-of-24 from behind the arc. But as the Crusaders hit shot after shot, all Rice could do was smile. Unlike last season, there is virtually zero chance of an NCAA at-large berth, so the pressure – on many levels – has been pulled down a couple of notches. Sure enough, down seven with a minute left, Monmouth came back to win with contributions from several players, finished by a Seaborn three-point play in the dying seconds. Even as the MAAC favorite (they went 17-3 in conference play last season), the Hawks know their NCAA future will depend on three games in Albany at the end of the season. They’ll surely win their share of games between now and then, and they’ll be learning every step of the way.

“Sometimes you get punched in the face and the team outplays you. And I think we got outplayed by Holy Cross,” Rice said. “But we’re never going to quit. Since I’ve been the coach at Monmouth, even when we were losing by 20, we never, ever quit. And we’ll always have that. We try to go as fast as we can. But you have to be able to win against all kinds of styles in conference play. We’ve seen teams that play slower than us, and they run their stuff, and we have to win those kinds of games, too.” And if things go their way, don’t worry, they’ll get plenty of attention the traditional way mid-majors have. In March.

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