At 2-4 on the season, and what will have been nine days since their last official action, a win over Siena where a late Saints rally almost stole a home victory away, Fordham is back on the Rose Hill Gym floor Wednesday night, welcoming a Monmouth a University team that is part of an unexpected three-way tie for first place in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play after their consecutive wins against Marist and Iona.
The Hawks, who at 4-4 are already validating beliefs of experts that King Rice's roster would be much improved, were two different teams, in essence, in their last two games. Against Marist, Monmouth was a gritty, defensive-minded squad that shut the Red Foxes down after leading scorer Chavaughn Lewis was lost for the night with a sprained ankle two minutes into the contest. Three days later, against an Iona team projected to win the MAAC, the Hawks relied on a refuse-to-lose attitude from sophomore point guard Justin Robinson to outlast an attack that included fifteen three-pointers from the Gaels and a combined 60 points from Tim Cluess' backcourt of Schadrac Casimir and A.J. English.
Robinson, along with his classmate Josh James and junior wing Deon Jones, comprises a three-pronged backcourt that has been a solid complement to the interior play of Brice Kofane, the graduate transfer from Providence, and 6-10 center Zac Tillman. Coupled with the experience of swingman Andrew Nicholas and Max DiLeo, not to mention sophomore big man Chris Brady off the bench, the Hawks are a deep bunch that can, and already has, compete with anyone in the nation.
The fourth straight meeting between Fordham and Monmouth is still over 24 hours away, but to preview this battle, we have once again enlisted the services of our good friend Josh Newman. Josh, whose work within and beyond the metropolitan area has been featured prominently on Adam Zagoria's ZagsBlog, does an even better job covering the Hawks for the Asbury Park Press, and for the second year in a row, graciously offered to share his wealth of knowledge as it pertains to the boys from West Long Branch making their way up the Garden State Parkway and over the George Washington and Alexander Hamilton Bridges into the Bronx:
Jaden Daly: In Monmouth's 2-0 start to MAAC play, the Hawks played two different games to defeat Marist and Iona. What was most impressive about this past weekend, and how much momentum can they bring forward from it?
Josh Newman: I think the most impressive thing is that they've succeeded early while adjusting to anything thrown at them. At Marist on Thursday, the Red Foxes went almost exclusively with a 2-3 zone and Monmouth did a great job of finding and exploiting holes in that zone. Against Iona on Sunday, the Gaels obviously looked to push the pace. Monmouth not only did a good job of keeping up and hanging in there but when Iona looked to run, but the Hawks also were able to slow the game down and play at their own pace for much of it. In terms of momentum, Monmouth has a ton right now, especially after the Iona win. A big thing early this season was Monmouth needing to believe it could beat good teams. Now, they've gotten over the hump and beaten a very good team in Iona.
JD: As a whole, Monmouth has been in every game this season, never losing by more than 12 points. Besides experience, what else can the first eight games be credited to?
JN: The first eight games can be credited to defense. King Rice overhauled how Monmouth plays defense, the kids have bought in and you're seeing the fruits of that labor through eight games. The 4-4 record is a tad misleading because Monmouth legitimately had West Virginia and Maryland on the ropes before falling. The 12-point loss you referenced, 63-51, at SMU, saw Nic Moore go crazy in the first half. Outside of that, even that game had Monmouth defending the Mustangs very well. Defense is the name of the game here for Monmouth. The Hawks are deep and believe on most nights, they'll have enough offense to win. Defense is where they're going to make their name.
JD: Justin Robinson has become more than just a complement to Josh James in the backcourt this year. What have been his biggest improvements in the jump from freshman to sophomore?
JN: I'll start this off by saying Justin Robinson is playing at a very high level and of all the freshman returning from last season, he has probably made the biggest jump as a sophomore. His intensity on both ends has picked up considerably, especially on both ends. Robinson is shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 48.3 percent from 3-point range. At the risk of using an awful cliche, that really is the product of countless hours at the MAC putting up Lord knows how many jumpers this past offseason. He always played with a chip on his shoulder because he's just 5-foot-8, and I think the fact he missed the tail end of last season because of a fractured foot has driven him even more. It's tough to argue he isn't the MVP of this team so far.
JD: Exactly how much of an X-factor has Brice Kofane been since arriving from Providence, and will he be a major part of the game plan since Fordham has no true answer for him inside?
JN: I think Kofane has been mostly what people thought he would be at the MAAC level in that he is an active defender in the paint and at the rim, and someone who can provide a little bit offense here and there. Will he be a part of the game plan? I don't think you're going to see Monmouth pound the ball in there, but there has been more of an emphasis recently on feeding the post. That's not just Kofane, but Zac Tillman and Chris Brady as well. In my opinion, I think what Kofane needs to do more of is hitting the offensive glass. In eight games, he has just 14 offensive rebounds, which is simply not enough from your best rebounder.
JD: Besides limiting Eric Paschall's touches and controlling Ryan Rhoomes in the paint, what are Monmouth's other keys to victory?
JN: I think you much pretty much hit the nail on the head with those first two points. Eric Paschall may very well get his, but at the very least, Monmouth needs to make him uncomfortable and make him shoot shots he normally would not. Beyond that and not letting Rhoomes run wild, I don't think there needs to be anything special in place. Monmouth has been pretty successful through eight games doing what it does.
JD: Finally, does the 2-0 start to MAAC play raise expectations for the Hawks once conference play resumes? How much of a boon will it be for their final standing, especially given they get the Buffalo trip to Canisius and Niagara during the first weekend in January?
JN: Expectations are probably raised because of the Iona win, but it's very, very early and nothing has really happened yet. Things are going to start to even out once conference-play resumes. Rationally, you can assume Iona will be Iona, Manhattan will get healthy and figure everything out, one might assume Siena will get things going and St. Peter's, too. What the 2-0 start did was it stamps Monmouth as a team that no one can overlook. Last year and that Monmouth team feels like a long time ago compared to what this Monmouth team has done so far. The Buffalo trip January 2 and 4 is interesting for a lot of reasons with Monmouth being 2-0. Keep in mind that last season, the Hawks took three of four against those teams, which obviously included a surprising win over Billy Baron and the Golden Griffins.