Winners of six straight, Justin Robinson and Monmouth continue to build toward bigger payoff following last year's unparalleled success. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
STATEN ISLAND -- The marquee victories over high-major schools have not returned. The famous celebrations from the bench have been muted.
What has remained in West Long Branch, aside from the competitive defiance of the head coach; who boldly proclaimed he and his program would be back with a vengeance after a bitter postseason exit last March, is an incremental build to something bigger.
Something better. Something special.
"That's what we're trying to do," head coach King Rice reassured after Monmouth shook off a first-half shootout to pull away from Wagner to take their sixth straight win with an 81-71 victory over their former Northeast Conference rival. "The thing I'm trying to do, this year especially, is enjoy the process, enjoy the journey. You get so caught up as a coach that you truly miss the journey. I was guilty of that, and this year we're definitely building towards something, but it's building towards having a program that sits at the top of the MAAC like Iona does, like Manhattan does, like Siena did. We want to be one of those teams."
"Having a successful season one time does not put you in the air with them," he added. "I'm trying to build to shorten the gap between them long-term, and short-term is to win the MAAC regular season championship and then give ourselves a chance to be playing our best basketball in March so we could win the MAAC Tournament championship."
And while last season's upsets of UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown were instrumental in raising the profile of the Monmouth program, the fact that such a statement victory is missing from the Hawks' resume turns out to be a blessing in disguise, keeping a focus on the simple things in the locker room.
"I want these kids just to work and get better," Rice solemnly shared. "The publicity we received last year was incredible for our program, our school, our kids. Incredible. I had never seen anything like that before at a mid-major school, so for us to think that would happen again, not realistic."
"We're just trying to be a team that just gets better every single day in practice," he elaborated, driving a point home in such a way that it felt not like the cliché it often gets utilized as by his fellow coaches, but rather a plea from a coach who has his players' best intentions ahead of anything else on his plate. "So far, we've been able to do that."
Easier said than done in the case of a team that won 28 games and reached the round of 16 in the nation's oldest postseason tournament. In that instance, the hangover can spill long into the ensuing season and erase all progress, yet Monmouth's personnel has found the rare balance between not only harnessing the bitterness stemming from an earlier than expected exit, but also how to properly channel that aggression.
"These kids have been incredible," a genuine Rice reflected. "We look a lot stronger, our togetherness is off the charts. These kids have been total what you want for your basketball team, and I think they'll keep getting better. We've got to keep enjoying this journey."
The journey has been rife with equal parts adversity and growing pains, and is so for a second consecutive year, but as the leader of a national darling looking for belated vindication, such an obstacle merely comes with the territory.
"We've definitely matured a lot, but we've definitely got some growing to do," senior point guard Justin Robinson said on a night where his contribution to the cause took on a greater role in the form of 33 points and six three-point field goals. "We're an older team, but we're a young team in the season if that makes any sense. There are going to be times where we'll have lapses that we're not going to have later in the season, so it's basically about growth every day in practice and every game."
Perhaps the biggest example of growth in the Hawks' rotation this season is their reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year, now the proven second scoring option behind Robinson and a player to be feared just as much; if not more, but more importantly a larger figure behind the scenes.
"I've gone under a transition, but more of it has been being more vocal," Micah Seaborn admitted. "Last year, I did a lot of the same stuff I did last year, but now I'm just trying to be more vocal, listening and trying to help Coach Rice get what he's saying to the other people."
"Last year, I got down on myself when I missed shots," he recollected, revealing that his moping has given way to a newfound confidence. "This year if I miss a shot, I just keep shooting. That's a big part of my growth."
And Seaborn is not the only one, as he himself adamantly reinforced.
"I feel like we have the same amount of firepower," he began before citing the improvement of his teammates. "It's just now, Je'lon (Hornbeak) is playing more confident than he was last year and Collin (Stewart) is playing more confident too. That's a big thing, it's not like we just added them. They're playing more confident, and that's why it looks like it does now."
When you add all those factors up, the pieces are in place and the magic is sealed in an air-tight bottle, a container that the Hawks intend to crack open at full velocity three months from now.
"I feel like this could be an even better season than last year," Seaborn excitedly opined. "We have old guys and then we have some young guys like Mustapha (Traore) and Pierre (Sarr) and Sam (Ibiezugbe) and Diago (Quinn) that I feel like are really going to help us in January, February and March. All those guys are going to help way more than they're showing right now. Even though they're helping us right now, they're going to help us way more and be able to change a lot of games for us."
"It's definitely something special," said Robinson, bringing the aura around Monmouth full circle. "We want to keep building. We don't want to be at our best now, we want to be working to be our best down the stretch in March."