Monmouth: Started From The Bottom, Now They’re Here, MAAC

HAMDEN, Conn. – Set your neighborhood time machine to 2013 and the large crowd at the TD Bank Center for Quinnipiac and Monmouth on a January night in 2016 probably made some sense to you. After all, although they were never able to quite capture the NEC title, Quinnipiac was always right there and it seemed that the Bobcats’ impending move to the MAAC would only propel them to bigger and better things (and more consistent crowds).

Sure enough, a year later, Quinnipiac was doing just fine, thank you, in its new MAAC surroundings, still pummeling teams into submission, once 14-4 in the league before a late slide. Meanwhile, for King Rice and Monmouth things were, well, rough. Rice’s team hadn’t even qualified for the 2013 NEC Tournament and its 5-15 (and 11-21 overall) a year later mark might have even exceeded expectations for a program making an upward move with seemingly very little to work with.

Poor King Rice. Excellent player and leader at North Carolina. Really good guy, but might be in a little bit over his head here. His top freshman was a 5’8” kid named Justin Robinson, who showed some potential, but wasn’t a great shooter, and didn’t have many people to pass to on a team that finished 314th in offensive efficiency and 289th in eFG%. Robinson was also out of control quite a bit as evidenced by his 24.5% turnover rate (the Hawks were 309th nationally at 20.5%).

The Monmouth bench, along with some starters, "dabs" after bench star Dan Pillari knocks down a pair of free throws late in the game.
The Monmouth bench, along with some starters, “dabs” after bench star Dan Pillari knocks down a pair of free throws late in the game.

Also in that freshman class was a 6’10” center named Chris Brady, who certainly had the size, but was more than a bit raw, so much so that Rice had trouble finding him minutes, even with the team struggling. Zac Tillman and Josh James were also freshmen in 2013-14, and like Robinson and Brady, showed some promise, but not enough to think that they would rise up and take over the MAAC or anything, the realm of mid-major powers Iona and Manhattan (and historically Siena).

But here we are.

Thursday’s game was not a thing of beauty by any means, but a 66-51 Monmouth win at struggling 5-12 Quinnipiac in front of the biggest crowd of the season at TD Bank Center spoke volumes. Yes, the popularity of the Monmouth bench (who stopped by SportsCenter on their trip to Connecticut this week) has something to do with it, but Monmouth is the biggest draw the MAAC has to offer these days (yes, bigger than Iona). From where they were three years ago, even two seasons ago, it is a remarkable transformation.

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“We’ve been running into that a lot this year,” Rice said. “Remember, we weren’t even picked to be the best team in this league, and we’re only half a game in front of Siena, and Jimmy (Patsos) is rolling. But now people are excited about what we’re doing, so they come and watch. They come watch the bench. We’re just happy that we get to play in front of good crowds. I think it’s good for our league, and hopefully people keep coming.”

Rice downplayed any magical formula of seasons’ past, but the players remember some of those lessons they learned the hard way as MAAC newbies.

“One day at a time, we try not to look too much into the past,” Robinson said. “The one thing I look at in the past is my freshman year, we lost every game at the end of January and all of February. I look at that and I say, it’s not this team anymore. We’re not that team.”

Except they are that team. Rice has brought in Micah Seaborn and JUCO transfer Je’lon Hornbeak, who have certainly helped, especially offensively, but the core has seen their way through the hard times. Robinson’s shooting has improved and despite his size, he is one of the most feared players in the league (and with good reason). But the number that really stands out is the turnover rate. Robinson is down to 11.8% (11.0% in MAAC play), and the Hawks have improved all the way to 52nd nationally in that category (16.4%), allowing their overall efficiency to climb into the top 100.

Meanwhile, Brady has developed into a threat at both ends of the floor, currently leading the MAAC in block rate and among the leaders in rebounding. After shooting just 42.4% from the field his freshman year, he’s up to 58.6% this season. Rice and his staff deserve plenty of credit for not only improving the players he has, but also giving them the confidence to do so. The Hawks (despite a subpar offensive effort Thursday) are a free-flowing, exciting team, and being loose is one of the reasons for their success.

“Our kids are growing up,” Rice said. “We’re the veterans now. Today’s gameplan was just straight go out and hoop, let the ball go every chance you get. Every time we come here we play tight, they take the lead and then we have to dig out of a hole. We didn’t do it enough today. We were supposed to jack up shots just to get the game going the way we wanted.”

While Monmouth has thrived, Quinnipiac has struggled, now 5-13 (2-7 MAAC), and dreadful offensively, 344th in efficiency and 351st and dead last (by 3 whole percentage points) in two-point shooting. The Bobcats are still owning the offensive glass (27 for 47.4% Thursday), but can’t score, looking a lot like that Monmouth team of two years ago.

“Two years ago, we were the younger team, they were a little older,” Robinson said. “This year, they’re younger, we’re older, it’s a pendulum.”

Said Rice simply, “This is our first time sweeping Quinnipiac. We’ve lost to them soooo much.”

Wins over UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, and Georgetown (one of which would have been astounding when Monmouth was at the bottom of the NEC and MAAC in Rice’s early years, let alone four in one season) have placed Monmouth in the NCAA at-large discussion, similar to Iona’s plight in 2012 when the Gaels did receive a controversial play-in bid in the end. Unfortunately, even at 16-5 and 8-2 in the MAAC, the teams on its schedule (including the aforementioned four with the exception of USC) have had their problems of late, and while regular followers of the MAAC know road games at Canisius and Manhattan can be extremely difficult, cold-hearted computers and Selection Committee members who don’t see a whole lot of mid-major basketball may not concur.

Of course, Monmouth could just win the MAAC Tournament in Albany, and it’s likely they’ll enter as favorites, even if it is on Siena’s home floor. But for Rice, from where he and the program were three years ago, he knows no matter what happens, it’s not likely they will be losing 10 of 11 games any time soon. Monmouth has only one senior (Deon Jones), and those crowds (both at home and on the road) may be there to see them for a while.

“The thing about a team like Manhattan is the first two years, they were better than us,” Rice said. “That’s just what it was. We tried to play them tough. We got beat the other night by a team that matched up well with us and beat us. They’re still the champs. Steve (Masiello) is one of my best friends, and he’s telling everybody were so great. We’re coming, but we’re still not where we want to be. This isn’t a one-year type of deal anymore, though. Next year we’re going to be good. The year after that, too. We feel like we’re in a good place as a program right now.”

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