Junior swingman Andrew Nicholas leads a young Monmouth team into their first season in MAAC after 28 years in Northeast Conference. (Photo courtesy of Monmouth University)
An astounding 49 schools switched conferences this morning, with two in particular moving within our realm of coverage after Monmouth and Quinnipiac departed the Northeast Conference to become the tenth and eleventh members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which lost Loyola to the Patriot League in the process. While Quinnipiac will receive its own similar profile, our first act in welcoming Monmouth to the MAAC will be to take a closer look at the Hawks from top to bottom on the roster to hopefully further illustrate just how; and where exactly, the Jersey boys fit into their new home.
Going into his third season, King Rice brings a combination of youth and experience into the MAAC. At just 44 years old, the former point guard under Dean Smith is the fourth-youngest coach in the conference, (Manhattan's Steve Masiello, who turns 36 in September, is the youngest) but already the fourth-longest tenured in the league behind John Dunne of Saint Peter's, fellow newcomer Tom Moore at Quinnipiac, and Iona's Tim Cluess. Rice's top assistant Rick Callahan makes up for the experience Rice is still picking up on the fly, having served as an assistant to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse while the Orange became a household name in the 1980s behind the likes of Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas, Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman. Brian Reese and Derrick Phelps, who played with Rice at North Carolina, won national championships as players, and as Monmouth's chief recruiters and player developers, they played a vital role in transforming the Hawks from NEC doormat to a resurgent second-half team that came from the back of the pack to clinch the No. 6 seed in the 2012 NEC Tournament.
Monmouth loses mounds of experience as they prepare for their inaugural campaign in the MAAC, as Jesse Steele has graduated and Dion Nesmith will use his final remaining year of eligibility at Hofstra under new Pride coach Joe Mihalich. South Carolina transfer Stephen Spinella will also need to be replaced, but swingman Andrew "Red" Nicholas will remain as he enters his junior season. The Hawks' leading scorer last season with an average of 13.9 points per game, Nicholas returns after being limited to just 18 games before a foot injury prematurely ended his sophomore season in January. With the glaring absences from last year's backcourt, sharpshooter Christian White will get a chance to improve his productivity as he goes into his sophomore campaign. Despite standing a mere 5-10, White scored just 97 points on 31 field goals, but 21 of them came from beyond the arc as the Rochester native averaged a blistering 42 percent from long range. Sophomore Jalen Palm and junior Max DiLeo, whose older brother T.J. was a valuable reserve on Fran Dunphy's Temple teams in recent years, will provide critical backcourt depth as redshirt freshman Collin Stewart and Towson expatriate Deon Jones become eligible this season.
Monmouth's experience loss up front is not much better than what departs the backcourt, as Marcus Ware; much like Dion Nesmith, graduated early and opted to transfer for his final year, which he will spend at new conference rival Iona. Fifth-year senior Gary Cox is also gone, as is Ed Waite, who is now focusing on football. In their place, burgeoning big men Khalil Brown and Tyrone O'Garro figure to become bigger parts of the Monmouth offense. Brown, who started six games in his sophomore season last year, is a long and athletic 6-9 forward who can cause matchup problems against some of the smaller MAAC teams, while the 6-5, 210-pound O'Garro is a high percentage shot taker who shot 49 percent from the field as a freshman last year.
At the moment, three recruits were signed by Rice and his staff to bolster the personnel for their first year in the MAAC, headlined by shooting guard Josh James. A 6-2 guard from Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, James is believed to be somewhat of a steal by his head coach, who feels he could play at any level, and is subsequently expecting big things from him. Greg Noack is a 6-8 forward described as a "stretch four" who can run the floor and shoot the ball well, while Zach Tillman is a 6-9, 280-pound big man by way of Pennsylvania who will instantly become a feared weapon inside while singlehandedly raising the Hawks' physicality. The two matchups between Tillman and Manhattan's Rhamel Brown will not be for the weak at heart this season. Finally, the Hawks received a verbal commitment from 6-10 center Marcelo Deschamps of Maine, but he has not yet signed.
Monmouth is a work in progress, as King Rice is opting for a long-term approach as he navigates the terrain in his first season in the conference. Looking at the Hawks' roster on paper, this team is building to compete within the next year or two, which will make this year a little harder from an adversity standpoint, but that is not to say that Monmouth will not be competitive. Last year, the MAAC was one of the more unpredictable leagues in the nation, with seven teams finishing .500 or better. Monmouth will likely project near the bottom of the standings with schools such as Marist and in-state rival Saint Peter's, but with a promising nonconference season that includes winnable games against Seton Hall, Fordham, Binghamton, St. Francis and Wagner, the Hawks can carry enough momentum into MAAC play that could influence some of the early results in the conference season.