Deon Jones' breakout season signified start of a new era at Monmouth, where Hawks overachieved during first season in MAAC. (Photo courtesy of Monmouth University)
When we had the chance to speak to him last summer as he prepared to navigate the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the first time, King Rice had mounds of confidence in his Monmouth team, making the jump into the MAAC after a long marriage with the Northeast Conference.
"We're not going in thinking we're the underdog," Rice boldly stated before guiding the Hawks to an 11-21 record that was significantly better than most expected upon Monmouth being selected last of eleven in the preseason coaches' poll. "We're looking to go in, and we're not going to lay down for anybody."
No sooner was that demonstrated than in the Hawks' season opener, in which they stormed back from a double-digit deficit to defeat Hofstra, only to follow that effort up with competitive showings against Big East programs the likes of Seton Hall and St. John's, the latter of whom trailed Monmouth late in the second half before pulling away for the win. At 3-4 going into the first pair of conference games in December, Rice was unable to lead his team to victory, but did manage to win over a handful of critics early with hard-fought battles against Rider and eventual MAAC champion Manhattan, falling short by a grand total of just 15 points. Before long, the Hawks reeled off convincing victories against former NEC rival St. Francis College and Fordham, who witnessed a stunning display in which Andrew Nicholas led a comeback of four unanswered Monmouth threes in the final two-plus minutes of regulation to upend the Rams. Yet for all the highs in a season that saw an ugly end with losses in all but one of the last twelve games, there were none bigger than the final seconds on January 19th, when the Hawks hosted MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron and Canisius in an affair that culminated with one of the best final calls in recent memory, provided by friend of the site Eddy Occhipinti, courtesy of the Shore Sports Network: (video courtesy of Monmouth University's "HawkVision")
Andrew Nicholas, who drained the heroic shot against Canisius, finished as Monmouth's second-leading scorer with a 14.3 point per game average to complement his 35 percent shooting from three-point range, as Towson transfer Deon Jones made the most of his opportunity for his new team, leading the Hawks with a 15-point, 7-rebound average compiled while mentoring a young backcourt featuring an interchangeable freshman point guard duo of Josh James and Justin Robinson, who will eventually become two of the better players at their position in the MAAC.
Looking back, perhaps the most significant accomplishment on the Monmouth ledger last season was winning as many games as they did without a single senior on the roster. The core of the team will be back, as Nicholas and Jones enter their senior seasons alongside James and Robinson, with twin towers Zac Tillman and Chris Brady; who combined for over seven points and six rebounds in their rookie campaigns, back for their sophomore seasons as well. The depth on the front line will only get better from there after the Hawks secured Brice Kofane recently after the Cameroon native decided to come to the Garden State following his graduation from Providence with one year of eligibility remaining. Kofane, who is a poor man's version of Manhattan's Rhamel Brown, will instantly provide Monmouth with a shot-blocking and rebounding prowess that makes up for the loss of Tyrone O'Garro after the Newark product was granted a release to pursue a transfer. Incoming freshman Micah Seaborn, a 6-5 combo guard who played alongside highly coveted prospect Emmanuel Mudiay at Prime Prep, will benefit greatly under the tutelage of Jones for his freshman season, and looks like a star in the making for Rice, whose offseason may not be over at the present moment, with Oklahoma expatriate guard Je'lon Hornbeak being rumored to take his talents to West Long Branch as well.
Going into next season, the outlook for Monmouth will be much more favorable on paper, but around the Hawk program, the same confident mantra and youthful exuberance will be on full display once again. As Rice himself put it before the season started, "we like what we're putting together, and it won't be easy to play against us."
Opposing teams may find that out the hard way as the Hawks start their encore in November.