Sunday, December 31, 2017

Monmouth's 0-2 MAAC start prompts Rice to assess Hawks' toughness

After dropping first two games in MAAC play, King Rice admits Monmouth is not at same level of past two seasons as Hawks look to get back on track as league schedule heats up. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

JERSEY CITY, NJ -- In case anyone needed further proof about how much more parity there is in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, or how Monmouth's adjustment to life without its senior leadership of last year would take time, consider this.

The Hawks, who lost just two games in conference play last season en route to a second straight regular-season MAAC title and subsequent National Invitation Tournament appearance, have matched that number through just two games this year, a 77-64 loss at Saint Peter's Sunday afternoon dropping them to 4-10 on the year and prompting a brutally honest self-assessment from the coach who guided the program to 55 wins since the end of the 2014-15 campaign.

"We're searching right now," head coach King Rice admitted as Monmouth fell victim to a 24-6 Saint Peter's run to start the second half while losing junior guard and all-MAAC selection Micah Seaborn to an ankle injury during the game-changing spurt to start the final stanza. "I've got a group of kids that are feeling a little bit beat up right now. We're probably hanging our heads a little more than we should, but I've been saying it: We're working on getting more together."

"Every one of our games, if you go back and watch, there's a four or five-minute stretch where we lose the game. It's been pretty much every game of the year that we lost. Even Virginia, we're ahead, there's a four-minute stretch where they go up 20 points. This game was 30-30 at halftime. We should have felt good. We come out and their first three shots are three-pointers from their best shooters, the same problem as Quinnipiac. We're still trying to find the effort level that it takes at this level."

Fans and analysts can point to the arduous non-conference schedule the Hawks played this season, taking on nationally-ranked outfits the likes of Seton Hall, Virginia, and Kentucky, and argue that a team losing some of its best weapons in Justin Robinson, Je'lon Hornbeak and Chris Brady was tested too hard too early, but Rice is not one to make excuses as far as that is concerned. Monmouth has shown flashes of being the same caliber of a team it has commanded national attention for recently being, but the process; as it naturally does, has been a trying and thorough one in West Long Branch in a season that reaches a pivotal stretch in the schedule Friday, when the Hawks welcome Manhattan to OceanFirst Bank Center for the first of four contests that also includes the Western New York road trip to Canisius and Niagara before two-time defending champion Iona comes to the Jersey Shore.

"We're just not fighters right now this year," he bluntly stated. "We're not the fighting group. We're the group that likes the nice things, but this group kind of got given the nice things by the last group and right now, there's not enough fight to us to defend, to try to be one of the top teams in this league, and this is a big-boy league. If you don't come for a fight, you're gonna have bad days."

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