Monday, March 7, 2016

King Rice arrives at MAAC championship game with perspective, appreciation, and balance

Three years ago, King Rice was making jump from Northeast Conference. Tonight, he leads Monmouth into MAAC championship game having learned a great deal in between. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

At this time in 2013, Monmouth was still a member of the Northeast Conference, but in order to get a head start on preparing for their upcoming endeavor in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, King Rice and assistant coach Rick Callahan spent the first weekend of March at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, scouting the MAAC Tournament.

Little did either of them know that just three years later, the new kid on the block would have the opportunity to go the NCAA Tournament, possibly representing their new league as its champion.

"You feel good that you get to play on Monday night," Rice said, taking in the significance of tonight's potential watershed moment as the Hawks square off with Iona (7 p.m., ESPN) with an automatic bid to the field of 68 hanging in the balance. "I've watched this game since we've been in the league, I've watched it before that. I watched when Gonzo (Bobby Gonzalez) won at Manhattan. I've had so much respect for this, and when we got in this league, we were picked eleventh and we weren't really involved. We lost to Rider, and we were gone from the tournament before Manhattan (the eventual champion) even showed up."

As much as Rice has appreciated Monmouth having the chance to prove themselves on a championship stage, even he conceded that the Hawks' rapid ascent came faster than anyone had envisioned.

"You never can think you're going to get in the MAAC and get to the top in three years," he said. "We knew we were going to be competitive. There's great teams in this league, and some teams that have been in a long time haven't gotten to the top, and we understand that. We just want to keep our heads low, keep working, and try to finish this part of our season off."

Monmouth's 27-win campaign has been a banner year for the West Long Branch program, and it has been marked by national attention for both the Hawks' on-court product and the media coverage of the ubiquitous bench celebrations. And as the success has poured in, perhaps no adjustment has been bigger than the one the coach has made in knowing when to bring the heat, or when to take a little speed off the fastball.

"When you get to this point, it isn't about me," Rice stated. "It's about the kids on the floor, so I need to stay out of their way. Everybody does it differently. Some guys are going to get after you, some guys are going to lay back. There's no one way to do it. I think I have my kids prepared, I'm ready to coach, but the players are going to do it today. They know what they need to do, I'm going to help them."

When asked if he found the ability to walk the fine line between hard-nosed and laid-back, Rice did say it was somewhat of a challenge, but a necessary one.

"I needed to," he said of having to rein himself in. "I was too hard on the kids for my first three years. I would take the fun out of it because the intensity was too much. They know who I am now, and these kids are older, we've been through it a bunch of times together. Now it's time for them to go out and shine. They worked to be in this position their whole lives, and now we're here. It's time for them to shine."

"It's been a long deal," he admitted, " but we knew we were moving it forward. We just wanted to get good enough to have a chance on Monday night, and we're here now. Hopefully we'll be the team that wins it tonight."

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