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?
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.