King Rice embarks on first journey as a MAAC head coach with a solid 11-game nonconference ledger to start his third season at Monmouth. (Photo courtesy of Monmouth University)
Since their arrival in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference on July 1st, one of the questions surrounding Monmouth University would be how the Hawks would handle the adjustment to their new league after 28 years in the Northeast Conference. A young team with mounds of potential, Monmouth may not be among the critics' picks to win a conference championship anytime soon; but in terms of upside, the Hawks rank near the top of the ladder as they prepare for their eleven-game nonconference schedule, which we will break down one team at a time, with some quotes and insights from King Rice on the Hawks' slate before they begin play in their new league:
Rice's thoughts on the schedule overall:
"Ever since I've been here, I told everyone that I was going to play a tough schedule, and I think I've kept my word on that. Some people think I scheduled too hard, but I'm a guy who wants to play against the best people, I want my kids to play against the best players I can find, and I want to coach against the best coaches."
Friday, November 8th vs. Hofstra: Monmouth opens their 2013-14 season by helping the Pride usher the Joe Mihalich era into Hempstead. Mihalich, who comes to Hofstra after a 15-year tenure at Monmouth's new MAAC compatriot Niagara that saw him become the conference's winningest coach. His new team at Hofstra features a quartet of incumbents from a seven-win Mo Cassara squad led by senior forward Stephen Nwaukoni, as well as a handful of newcomers that includes former Hawk guard Dion Nesmith, who will use his final year of eligibility on Long Island as a graduate transfer. "We had a good game last year, and I'm sure they were a little surprised that we came out on top," Rice said. "Joe, coming from the MAAC, I've watched Joe for a long time, I knew him when he was an assistant and he did a tremendous job up at Niagara all those years, so this will be a huge challenge for me since it's only my third year being the head coach."
Tuesday, November 12th vs. Penn: Fran Dougherty, last year's leading scorer for the Quakers, returns to a deceptively strong team that could challenge for an Ivy League title if the ball bounces in all the right places for head coach Jerome Allen. In addition to Dougherty, Penn returns its starting backcourt of sophomore Tony Hicks and senior Miles Cartwright, while Henry Brooks and Darien Nelson-Henry once again team up with Dougherty up front. "Jerome told me they were expecting to be better this year," Rice said, "and we're expecting to be better also. I never back down from a challenge, and our kids will be ready when it's time to be ready."
Monday, November 18th at Seton Hall: The Hawks come to the Prudential Center with a major opportunity to pick up a win against Kevin Willard and the Pirates, who are still attempting to pick up the pieces from a rebuilding year last season in the absence of former Bobby Gonzalez recruits Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope, who led the Hall to their first postseason appearance since 2006. Senior swingman Fuquan Edwin is still around, but a lot of fresh blood comes to the backcourt in South Orange, led by highly touted recruit Jaren Sina and Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs. If Eugene Teague can build on his productive first Big East season last year, the Pirates will show signs of improvement this time around. "I thank Kevin for playing us," Rice said with regard to the matchup against the Pirates. "A lot of times, it's hard to get the big schools to play you, especially when you don't have the greatest RPI yet, but Kevin was nice enough to play us. It's a big, big deal for our kids to play against Big East schools."
Friday, November 22nd at St. John's: The second of two Big East opponents presents a far tougher test for Monmouth, as Steve Lavin brings everyone except seldom-used swingman Amir Garrett back to the Red Storm roster this season. The Hawks will no doubt have their hands full with Lavin's patented matchup zone defense and inside-outside pair of reigning Big East Rookie of the Year JaKarr Sampson and outside shooter extraordinaire D'Angelo Harrison, who returns to the team following a suspension at the end of the regular season. The key for St. John's in this matchup will be shot blocker Chris Obekpa, who will seek to create mismatches against a smaller Monmouth frontcourt. "It's going to be a big challenge to play these schools, (St. John's and Seton Hall) but hey, it's our third year, and we need to play better against the bigger schools," Rice stated. We did better our first year with (North) Carolina and Vanderbilt, and then last year, Syracuse clobbered us, and Villanova and Maryland clobbered us. It was basically a mismatched game and we didn't handle it very well, but with two years under our belt, we should handle it better."
Tuesday, November 26th at Penn State: Monmouth's longest nonconference road trip comes in this Barclays Center Classic preliminary round matchup with Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lions, who add highly regarded recruit Geno Thorpe to their incumbent backcourt of D.J. Newbill and sixth-year senior Tim Frazier, who has recovered from a torn Achilles tendon. Remember this name, though: Ross Travis. The junior swingman had a breakout second year last year, and with the right amount of touches this season, he could average a double-double per game.
Friday, November 29th vs. Mississippi Valley State: The Delta Devils, known primarily as the alma mater of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, look to take the next step in rebuilding off a 5-23 campaign just one year after winning the SWAC and reaching the NCAA Tournament. The good news for MVSU fans is that all three guards, who led the team in scoring last year, are back; with sophomore Matt Smith joining seniors Darryl Marshall and Davon Usher, the latter of whom led the Delta Devils by shooting 40 percent from three-point range.
Saturday, November 30th vs. Longwood or North Carolina A&T: Depending on who wins the subregional game between these two schools, Monmouth gets a unique foe either way. If it is Longwood, the Hawks will need to prepare for the scoring and shooting display that senior Tristan Carey will put on, while junior Jeylani Dublin looks to take the next step following averages of ten points and nearly six rebounds per game. If it is North Carolina A&T, Monmouth gets an Aggies squad that will seek its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance behind senior guard and leading scorer Lamont Middleton and sophomore wing Bruce Beckford, who played for Stu Vetter at Montrose Christian prior to joining the Aggies.
Tuesday, December 10th at St. Francis College: Monmouth makes the trip to a familiar venue for this matchup, as the Pope Center in Brooklyn Heights hosted many collisions between the Hawks and Terriers when both were members of the Northeast Conference, including one this past January where Monmouth used a dominating second half to overcome a deficit and defeat Glenn Braica's squad for the second consecutive time. St. Francis has retooled in the wake of losing Akeem Johnson, Dre Calloway and Travis Nichols due to graduation, but point guard Brent Jones and sharpshooting Englishman Ben Mockford still remain, while swingman Kevin Douglas provides a deceptively strong scoring punch alongside first team all-NEC forward Jalen Cannon. "We've had a little bit of success against St. Francis," Rice said, "but they've beaten us too, and Glenn does a great job. He doesn't get enough credit for the job he does."
Saturday, November 14th vs. Binghamton: Tommy Dempsey is starting to build the Bearcats in much the same way he helped turn Rider into a contender in the MAAC. Sophomore guard Jordan Reed, who led Binghamton in scoring as a freshman, returns; as does junior Robert Mansell, who used a medical redshirt one year after ranking fifth in the America East in scoring. Senior guard Rayner Moquete, a Fordham expatriate, has a deceptive outside shot, and could engage in a shootout with Christian White late in the second half if both teams take their chances from outside.
Saturday, December 21st vs. Fordham: Monmouth meets Tom Pecora and the Rams for the third consecutive year, and has revenge on their minds after Fordham picked up an 82-71 win over the Hawks on New Year's Eve at Rose Hill Gym. Pecora has made this year's group his most talented yet, however, with New York State Mr. Basketball Jon Severe joining senior Branden Frazier and sophomore Mandell Thomas in the backcourt, while his trio of burgeoning big men in junior Ryan Canty and sophomores Ryan Rhoomes and Travion Leonard continue to improve. If junior guard Bryan Smith can be more consistent with his shot, the Rams will be much more improved than expected. "I think that's the game that will really show us where we're at," Rice boldly proclaimed. "The first year, we outplayed them, last year, they outplayed us badly. They're a bigger, stronger team than we are, they showed that last year. A lot of the MAAC teams are like them, they're bigger and stronger, more physical, and I think playing them will definitely have us prepared to go into the MAAC."
Monday, December 30th vs. Wagner: The Hawks close out their non-league slate with another familiar foe in Bashir Mason and the Seahawks, who will be one of the top teams in the NEC this season behind their senior backcourt duo of Kenny Ortiz and Latif Rivers. A new face makes his way to Staten Island this year as well, that being Valparaiso transfer Jay Harris, whose outside shooting and potential to quickly become a microwave of sorts will help Mason replace the productivity vacated by the graduation of Jonathon Williams. "Bashir, taking over for Danny, (Hurley) I thought he did an incredible job last year," Rice said of the 29-year-old leader of the Verrazano Warriors. "I know he has a lot of guys back and had a good recruiting class, but he filled in some big shoes and did a great job. I asked him if he wanted to play, (us) he wanted to play, they said they'd start at our place, so that's why we have that game."
Rice's expectations entering the MAAC:
"We're not going in thinking we're the underdog. I know Steve (Masiello) has a good team coming back at Manhattan, Iona's been incredible, Jim Baron recruited me at Notre Dame so I know the type of coach he is. There's some really good coaches in the MAAC, exceptional players in the MAAC, guys make the pros out of this league. We've been talking about it since we were picked to join the league, and our guys have been working extremely hard, so we're looking to go in and we're not going to lay down for anybody. We'll be a lot tougher this year than we've been the last two years."
On having a younger roster than some other programs:
"A lot of people think you have to have older guys. I think that's overrated right now. Kentucky won the national championship with all young guys. I think young kids play a big part in it, and young guys will play a big part in our success this year."
Insights from scouting the MAAC Tournament last March in Springfield:
"Me and (assistant coach) Rick Callahan were at the tournament. The physicality of the league and the way the league is officiated, they let you play, and I love that. I love the physicality of the league, and that's the main thing we've been talking to our kids about. Last year, we fouled too much and moving to the MAAC, with all the banging that we got called for, it'll be a different type of physicality. I think our guys are ready for it, they're very excited about joining the MAAC, and we've had a great summer in the weight room and on the floor. We like what we're putting together, and it won't be easy to play against us."
On the makeup of his roster:
"Deon Jones is a player. He averaged ten points at Towson, he wasn't just a guy on the team, he started every game when he was there. He averaged ten as a freshman, so I think people are thinking 'we're going to be so young,' and Red (Andrew Nicholas) averaged fourteen and had an underachieving sophomore year, I would say. Red is a kid that can score the ball, Deon is a kid who can score the ball, Christian White before he got hurt was playing really well. Tyrone (O'Garro) I think is a kid that really fits the MAAC, he's an undersized guy that's athletic, he moves and runs. Khalil (Brown) has probably had the best summer since he's been here, and I'll tell you what: My young guys, I know everybody's talking about the young guys, but Justin Robinson is a problem to deal with. He can just do so many things. Josh James is another kid that came in and has been impressive every single day, people forget we had Collin Stewart sitting out, he's a 6-7 two guard that shoots it, and then our young big guys have been here three and a half weeks, one of them lost 30 pounds and the other lost 22 pounds, and they're still dropping weight. They're big, they're 6-10 and a half, probably about 270 now, we'll get them to about 265. So we're going to have two or three 6-10, 265-pound guys. I want to see people move them, I just want to see. They're young, but they're strong and they're physical, and they rebound and they protect the rim. I like our team, and I like our chances."