Monmouth 82, Fairfield 62: Waiting For The MAAC Tournament

Monmouth has entered a strange portion of its season which few have to deal with, and really – from a pure justice standpoint – doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Monmouth pummeled Fairfield, 82-62, Tuesday night at Webster Bank Arena for its 14th straight victory. The Hawks (24-5, 16-2) have already won their second straight MAAC title, yet still have two fairly difficult regular season games left: against Siena and at Iona.

Now in most of life’s pursuits, consistently over the long haul is rewarded. Monmouth is now 33-5 in MAAC play over the last two seasons, and as King Rice said afterward, if you watched the Hawks at the end of their time in the NEC or their first season in the MAAC, that is quite the accomplishment and deserves to be recognized as such by fans and the public at large.

Alas, mid-major basketball is not really fair if you step back and try to explain it to, say, a person from Mars stopping by for a night of entertainment. Monmouth went 27-7 in 2015-16, beat some of the best teams in the country, and won the MAAC title at 17-3. But a loss on a neutral court to Iona in the conference title game meant their season was a bit of a failure? That’s how it goes, as it was off to NIT.

Circling back to the present, there is little hope that Monmouth is worthy of an NCAA at-large bid this season, even if they end at 28-6 (which would have them losing in the MAAC final), a game better than last season. So, if the MAAC Tournament is everything, what do you do for the rest of this week? Treat them like they’re scrimmages? Not show too much and save adjustments for Albany?

Or maybe just go ahead and win every darn game, because – regardless of what it means for a legacy at the end of the day – that’s why you play the game. To win. Right, Herm?

“Just with my background, I’m a day to day guy,” Monmouth coach King Rice said. “If I get through today, I made it. When you get kids and you get them on one game at a time, we’re one of the best teams. We’ve shown that, so if we can stay focused, who’s to say we just can’t keep winning them one game at a time? That’s been the thing we’ve been talking about. Credit to them. I was nervous about today just because I’ve been saying for two days, ‘Who are we?’ Are we the guys that won the league and now we think we’re cool and now we can relax? Or are we the guys that got to the championship last year and lost and said we weren’t stopping until we got through that? These kids have been amazing and I’m just going to keep pushing them toward the next game.”

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So Monmouth will treat this weekend like they have every other one this season, and then worry about the MAAC Tournament when it arrives (for the Hawks in the quarterfinals next Friday). For a team that hasn’t lost since Jan. 2, that seems like a good way to go.

“Three years ago, we had 20 losses,” Rice said. “And the year before that and the year before that were the same. I truly don’t feel like we’ve done anything yet, so we have to stay focused.”

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What else did we learn Tuesday night, Senior Night for Fairfield?:

1) Senior Night always special

Andrew Leone, one of three seniors for Fairfield, got his picture on the cover of the program Tuesday, which was well deserved if you’ve followed the Stags the last few years. Leone, who is listed at 5’6”, rarely appears on the court, but got his first career start against Monmouth and wasted no time getting a three-pointer up. Alas, it hit the back of the rim.

“Basketball is one of those games where it’s a ball going in a hoop and it’s kind of simple, but the people around it is why you play the game, and I’ve been blessed to have great teammates and great coaches for four years,” Leone said. “Minutes are something, but those relationships last forever.”

Leone finished 0-3 from the field (he did get a rebound), but he hopes his future career comes off the court. For the last couple of seasons, Leone has sat on the Fairfield bench next to the coaches, where he has been a de facto undergraduate assistant to Sydney Johnson and his staff. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of men like Josh Pastner and Steve Masiello, who didn’t play a whole lot in their college careers, but are now Division I head coaches.

“I’ve been interested in coaching since I got here, and they’ve been the best when it comes to that,” Leone said. “They’ve embraced that and kind of let me onto their staff, almost like an internship. For that, I’m forever grateful because I’m doing something I want to do, and I’m getting experience. I have to finish playing first, though. Once the jersey comes off, I’ll worry about putting on a suit.”

For Tuesday, though, it was a nice chance to be the star, even if it was for only a couple of minutes.

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2) Live by the three

Monmouth finished 13-24 from three-point range Tuesday, which is obviously very good, but it shouldn’t shock you that the Hawks are a very good shooting team (37.4%, 68th nationally) with weapons like Je’lon Hornbeak and Justin Robinson leading the way.

But the Hawks are just 278th in two-point shooting (46.8%, just ninth in the MAAC), which is surprising. Monmouth is second in offensive efficiency in conference, though (behind Iona, who has won this particular crown six straight times) because they don’t turn the ball over (16.6%, best in MAAC) and get to the line a lot (oddly, Marist and Manhattan, the two worst offenses in the conference, are 1-2 in that category).

You shouldn’t sleep on Monmouth’s defense, either, which sometimes gets overlooked because the Hawks play so fast. Only Saint Peter’s has been more efficient in the MAAC, with the Hawks really excelling where they struggle offensively, allowing only 44.0% on two-point shooting.

3) Fairfield still chasing the bye

Johnson still says he’s not looking at the standings, but his hopes for the fifth and final first round bye in the MAAC Tournament took a hit here. Fairfield (14-13, 9-9) does not hold the tiebreaker with Canisius (even by beating them) and therefore will need to sweep the Buffalo trip to finish the season, then have the Griffins lose to Saint Peter’s (at home) in their season finale. Not impossible, but KenPom only puts the odds of that happening at 6.5%. So if you’re a Stags fan, it’s probably safe to purchase tickets for next Thursday.

Fairfield would also like to finish at .500 to qualify for the CIT, where it has had some success in the last years. To do that, they’ll have to win probably two more games this season (including MAAC Tournament).

“We wanted to make them work, but they got some clear, open looks,” Johnson said. “That puts a lot of pressure on you. When we did a better job of contesting, sometimes they made those, too. That’s a very good ballclub. If we play them again, we just have to find a better way to keep them under control.”

Game on from Bridgeport! Bally is back! #TMMLegacy

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