Friday, May 27, 2016

Breaking down Monmouth's non-conference schedule

Monmouth begins encore to record-setting season on November 11, when Hawks host Drexel in West Long Branch. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

A 28-win season that set a program record for victories, yet saw a somewhat egregious NCAA Tournament snub, was only the beginning for Monmouth.

The Hawks, undeterred by their oversight at the hands of the selection committee, still advanced to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, and head coach King Rice proclaimed; boldly and defiantly, that his team would return undaunted and stronger than they were.

Monday afternoon marked the first step in Monmouth's encore, with the team's non-conference schedule being released. An 11-game slate that features four contests at the Multipurpose Activity Center and road games against two reigning Final Four participants that serve among six postseason teams on the Hawks' ledger, will be the test that last year's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season champion will face before resuming league play in January.

Starting with their season opener against Drexel on November 11, and reaching its conclusion against North Carolina on December 28, we preview each game in-depth, highlighting what awaits Monmouth in their road to what the Hawks hope will be an NCAA Tournament, which would be the program's first since 2006:

Friday, November 11 vs. Drexel: The Dragons, and new head coach Zach Spiker, head to West Long Branch to return Monmouth's 82-74 victory last November, but will be a completely different unit. Both of their leading backcourt scorers must be replaced, leaving senior Rodney Williams as the focal point of Drexel's offense. Major Canady, who redshirted due to injury last season, will be returning, and should be expected to carry the load in the absence of Terrell and Tavon Allen.

Tuesday, November 15 at South Carolina: Like Monmouth, Frank Martin's Gamecocks were also among the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, relegated to the NIT despite winning 25 games. The good news for the Hawks is that South Carolina will be younger than they were this past season, needing to replace four-year warrior Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas up front. However, each of the Gamecocks' three guards returns, with Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice going into their senior seasons alongside sophomore PJ Dozier. Also of note is the presence of sophomore Chris Silva, who played alongside Monmouth's Pierre Sarr in high school at Roselle Catholic.

Friday, November 18 at Syracuse: The Orange shocked the world en route to arguably the most unlikely Final Four appearance in program history last season, and will need to replace each of their guards after Malachi Richardson remained in the NBA Draft while Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney graduated. Nevertheless, Jim Boeheim's front line will cause matchup problems for everyone next season, with Tyler Lydon and Tyler Roberson anchoring the patented 2-3 zone defense while freshman Tyus Battle is entrusted with running the offense.

Tuesday, November 22 vs. Cornell: The second of four non-conference home games will see Monmouth welcome Brian Earl, a former Princeton assistant who takes over the Big Red following the dismissal of Bill Courtney. The new head coach will not have as much to work with in Ithaca following the graduation of several pieces in a senior-laden roster, but junior guard Matt Morgan will no doubt be Cornell's focal point after averaging nearly 19 points per game a year ago. Finding a steady rebounder will be critical to their success.

Friday, November 25 at Holy Cross: Last year's Patriot League champions will seek a march to the NCAA Tournament that will not border so much on impossible this season, projecting to be much improved. Five of the Crusaders' top six scorers return for head coach Bill Carmody, including guard Robert Champion and 6-7 wing Malachi Alexander, who shot 44 percent from three-point range last season.

Saturday, November 26 vs. South Carolina State: This neutral site game against the Bulldogs will be played at Holy Cross as part of the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Invitational, which also explains Monmouth's trips to South Carolina and Syracuse. South Carolina State returns four of their top six scorers from last season, headlined by guards Eric Eaves and Ed Stephens.

Tuesday, December 6 at Wagner: The Hawks make the trip up the Garden State Parkway and over the Outerbridge Crossing to Staten Island, renewing their series with the Seahawks, their former Northeast Conference rival. After winning 23 games and scoring the first postseason win in program history when they took down St. Bonaventure in the NIT, Bashir Mason brings a talented group with mounds of upside back to Grymes Hill, led by junior guard Corey Henson and perhaps the most underrated player in the area, senior forward Michael Carey, a double-double threat who was surprisingly left off the NEC's first team last season. While Wagner must replace the likes of Dwaun Anderson, Henry Brooks and Mike Aaman, they get some relief up front with the arrival of AJ Sumbry, who sat out last season after transferring from Quinnipiac.

Saturday, December 10 vs. Army: In retrospect, the loss to the Black Knights at Christl Arena last December may have been the one that Monmouth fans want back from last season, as the setback; coupled with conference losses to Canisius and Manhattan, were the three sub-200 RPI losses that ultimately left the Hawks on the outside looking in. However, this will be a different Army team that new head coach Jimmy Allen will guide, and is one that must replace five senior starters. Junior forward Luke Morrison is the team's top returning scorer after playing in just 21 games off the bench last season, while Kennedy Edwards will be counted on to provide a boost to the rebounding efforts in his senior campaign.

Tuesday, December 13 at Memphis: Monmouth scored a winnable guarantee game with the Tigers, who have a young roster for new coach Tubby Smith to work with. The greatest news for the former national champion tactician is that Dedric Lawson returns for his sophomore season after an impressive freshman campaign of nearly 16 points and nine rebounds per game, good enough to earn the homegrown talent Rookie of the Year honors in the American Athletic Conference. Markel Crawford, who developed into a high percentage shot taker last season, will be in line for a productive senior year as graduate transfer Christian Kessee arrives from Coppin State to anchor the backcourt.

Tuesday, December 20 vs. Princeton: This could be the game of the year in the area, a battle of two likely Top 50 RPI teams if both the Hawks and Tigers replicate their 2015-16 form. In winning 22 games and earning an at-large spot in the NIT, Mitch Henderson and Princeton went a long way in validating their tremendous future promise, returning almost everyone from a team that gave Yale all it could handle in the Ivy League championship race. Henry Caruso and Pete Miller are both solid scorers and rebounders for the Tigers up front, with Steven Cook and Amir Bell able to knock down shots on the wings while Spencer Weisz threads the needle with his exemplary passing skills. Remember this name, though: Devin Cannady. The Tigers' sophomore sixth man has already displayed a knack for making clutch shots, playing the hero in both regulation and overtime during a pivotal overtime road win against Columbia late in the season.

Wednesday, December 28 at North Carolina: The final test for Monmouth before MAAC play resumes comes against Rice's alma mater, and a likely Top 10 team in the nation by the time the Hawks travel to Chapel Hill. While Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson have graduated, the Tar Heels are by no means incomplete, returning junior wing Justin Jackson on the wing to serve as their long distance specialist while Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks protect the rim for last year's national runner-up. In the backcourt, Joel Berry II emerged as a steady ball handler last year, and will be one of the best players in the country at his position going into his junior season. Nate Britt joins him off the ball, with Theo Pinson ready to make an impact on the wing as well. Of note will be how Roy Williams works his talented incoming freshmen into the rotation, as both forward Tony Bradley and guard Seventh Woods come to UNC as Top 100 recruits.

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