This is a guest post by Ronak Patel.
If one Googles the distance from West Long Branch, N.J. to China; the algorithm churns out the following: 7,169 miles.
Monmouth University basketball player Collin Stewart took the long route to becoming a productive player for the Hawks. The Glenville, N.Y. native is entering his junior season fresh off the team’s trip to China in late May and early June and on the heels of a superlative sophomore season.
Last season, Stewart appeared in all of Monmouth’s 33 games and played a little more than 14 minutes per game. He produced 6.0 ppg and was one of the key bench cogs who helped the Hawks finish 18-15 overall and tied for third in the MAAC standings with Manhattan.
After the season concluded, the Hawks regrouped and embarked on a wanderlust 14-day jaunt through China, playing four games against two Chinese professional teams. The team hiked the Great Wall and experienced Shanghai where they visited the world’s highest observatory at the Shanghai World Financial Center. They also visited Beijing.
“The Great Wall was my favorite part,” Stewart said. “It was really cool and a different experience. It was crazy and you can’t explain the feeling; it’s amazing. Beijing was New York City times 10 because there’s so many people.”
Outside of the sightseeing, the Hawks went 3-1 on the trip and scored more than 100 points in back-to-back games. The first game ended in a 72-62 defeat at the hands of the Shanghai Sharks, Yao Ming’s former team and current president of the franchise. In the rematch a couple days later in Shanghai, Stewart led the team with 14 points in the Hawks’ 78-61 victory.
“They were definitely talented players we played against,” Stewart said. “It was hard to get used to the calls because it’s so different over there. The rules are different and definitely not as physical as play is over here.“
But Stewart said the team overcame the different style of play and saved their two best performances for the end with a 111-101 victory over Anhui Wenyi and 106-95 win in the teams’ rematch couple days later. Stewart poured in 22 points on six three-pointers in the final contest.
Stewart felt playing in the exhibition games was a tremendous litmus test for the team as the prep for the coming season.
“I think it bonded us on the court and especially the style of play we may see this season,” Stewart said. “The two teams had different styles: Shanghai was more of a grind it out team and the latter was a team that likes to get up and down the court.”
Expectations are rock solid for Monmouth this season, their third in the MAAC. The Hawks have made substantial progress during head coach King Rice’s tenure. They jumped from 11 wins during the 2013-14 to 18 last season, the most during Rice’s four years at the helm.
“I know personally our entire team wants to win the MAAC Championship and the tournament,” Stewart said. ““We have a lot of pieces and our whole team can play. No matter what lineup we have in, we will definitely compete. “
The team loses just two out of their top seven players in last’s year rotation, guard Andrew Nichols (7.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and guard Max DiLeo (6.4 ppg and 3.0 rpg). They return leading scorer and playmaker junior guard Justin Robinson (13.0 ppg, 3.6 apg), swingman Deon Jones (12.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and welcomes an infusion of talent in Oklahoma transfer Je’lon Hornbreak, who averaged 5.3 ppg in his two seasons with the Sooners.
“We’re still a young team but we have a lot of leaders on the team,” Stewart said. “Deon (Jones) and (Je’lon) Hornbeak are tremendous and show up when we need help.”
After coming off the bench in all 33 games last season, Stewart is in line to compete for a starting spot this season. It’s an impressive transformation for a player who took a redshirt his first season on campus in 2012.
“The redshirt was a good year for me; I gained about 30 to 40 pounds in a year and half. That was big year for me,” Stewart said. “This year, I’m hoping to play more and see where it goes.”
While it may seem difficult for a player to redshirt given the high of college basketball, Stewart said it was a mutually agreed upon decision between his dad, his high school coach and Rice.
“Honestly I wasn’t expecting the redshirt,” Stewart said. “But we all decided it would be best for me to take a redshirt. I was 6’7 and weighed 167 pounds. It was the best option for me. It throws you off a little but you have to stick to it and keep working and you’ll get there.”
A lot of time spent in the weight room, in the gym hoisting up jumpers and working on his skills has paid off for Stewart, who is expecting big things from his team in the MAAC this season.
“I think the MAAC is a great conference,” Stewart said. “It’s a strong conference and everybody competes really hard. And cliché is apt for the league: anyone can win on any given night. We’re closer than ever now and it will carry over to the season.”