When the MAAC tournament gets underway in Albany this weekend, one team will face a challenge they haven’t encountered before.
King Rice’s Monmouth squad enjoyed a breakout year in 2014-15. In their second year in the MAAC, the Hawks quickly established themselves as a conference contender with an impressive 92-89 win over eventual regular season champion Iona in December.
That early season win gave Monmouth a 2-0 start to conference play which would eventually grow to 4-0 and finish at 13-7. It was by far the most successful season since the Hawks’ trip to the NCAA tournament in 2005-06.
However, when Rice’s team takes the court Saturday afternoon against Canisius, they will kick off a stretch unlike anything they have encountered before. The challenge of winning three games in three days can be daunting for any team, but especially so for one with such little playoff experience.
During Rice’s four year tenure in West Long Branch, his squad has played just two conference playoff games. The first came in his inaugural season of 2011-12 when Monmouth fell at Robert Morris as the six seed in the NEC playoffs. The second came last season when the Hawks finished ninth in the MAAC, falling to Rider in the opening round.
Under NEC rules, Monmouth would have missed out on another opportunity at playoff experience, as the league only qualifies the top eight finishers for the postseason. Fortunately, all 11 MAAC teams qualify for the conference tournament, so last year’s experience may prove to be invaluable to this year’s group.
Just two players – Max DiLeo and Andrew Nicholas – are hold overs from that NEC playoff experience, while many more garnered experience from last year’s tournament. Brice Kofane, a transfer from Providence, saw limited action in the Big East tournament as well.
“I think that’s a tough challenge for any team,” Rice said of running the gauntlet in the MAAC tournament. “But there’s teams that do things the first time with young kids and get going at the right time. I think my kids have a lot of confidence, and you know it’s good that Red (Andrew Nicholas) and Max have been through the hard times from when we first got here.”
Believe it or not, Monmouth has already prepped for the situation they’ll see in Albany this weekend. The Hawks hosted a branch of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in late November during which they did in fact play three games in three days. Albeit all three were played on their home court and against teams who would go on to a combined 27-65 record.
Monmouth easily handled their first two opponents during that stretch before falling to Towson 79-75 in overtime. That was a modest prep for the marathon that is the MAAC tournament, but the competition in Albany will be much fiercer.
The Hawks swept their quarterfinals opponent Canisius by a combined nine points during the regular season. If they survive that battle, in all likelihood they will be greeted by another showdown with Iona in the semifinals. As noted, Monmouth defeated the Gaels in December and came within a point of completing the sweep just two weeks ago.
In the end, Monmouth has just as good a shot to take the MAAC crown as any other contender in a year where the tournament is more unpredictable than ever.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.