Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Monmouth enters MAAC Tournament not as team to beat, but team to watch

Set to appear in his third game back from hamstring injury, Micah Seaborn leads Monmouth into MAAC Tournament Thursday, where Hawks open in Albany against Saint Peter's. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament has brought on a different set of circumstances and implications for Monmouth in each year of the Hawks' membership in the league, beginning in the 2013-14 season.

Before that year even began, head coach King Rice and his top assistant, Rick Callahan, were in Springfield scouting the competition fresh off their exit from the Northeast Conference. Year one in the MAAC brought about an adjustment period and valuable lessons learned through experience and defeat. Year two was one of upward trajectory, highlighted by an 18-win campaign and a potential for much greater things. The next trip to Albany, preceded by the hype of multiple victories against high-major opposition and a bench that caught the eye of national media outlets for their innovative celebrations, made the Hawks the media darling before their narrow loss to Iona in the MAAC championship game. And last year, Monmouth repeated as regular season conference champions, only to be done in by Nico Clareth's second-half explosion for Siena in the semifinals, again relegating the Jersey Shore powerhouse to the National Invitation Tournament.

This March, the Hawks are once again taking on a new role, that of reputed name brand, but partially overlooked challengers. Having endured an arduous non-conference schedule that included the likes of Seton Hall, Virginia, and Kentucky all before the Christmas holiday, the former two-time No. 1 seed has soldiered on, fighting off multiple injuries to Micah Seaborn and relying on the evolution of a multifaceted freshman class meshed with returning veterans who know the lay of the land as a circuitous road awaits, beginning with Saint Peter's on Thursday evening.

"You have to be ready to know they're going to guard you as well as anybody," Rice said of the Peacocks and the challenge they represent for Monmouth (11-19) in a matchup where the winner will advance to face top seed and regular season co-champion Rider. "They're going to play at a pace where you're going to have to play solid defense for 25 seconds, and their kids are really, really together. They don't take bad shots, they don't try to do things that you can tell the coaches don't want them to do."

Monmouth and Saint Peter's split their two regular season meetings, with the home team holding serve on each occasion. In the first skirmish between the two New Jersey rivals on December 31, the Peacocks used a 24-6 run in the early stages of the second half to put the Hawks away, before Monmouth returned the favor with a victory in West Long Branch on February 13. The common thread between those two games is that Micah Seaborn, the former first team all-MAAC talent, was either limited or unavailable each time; injuring his ankle three minutes removed from halftime in December, then missing the second Saint Peter's game due to a hamstring injury. But the junior wing is back and ready to go, and has made up for lost time even if his most recent impression was not indicative of such.

"Micah did play great against Rider," Rice said of Seaborn's return to action on February 22, when he scored 30 points in a 91-77 win over the Broncs. "I thought Fairfield had a good plan against him (Seaborn did not score), and I didn't help him enough. But Micah's had a tough year because of injuries. When he's healthy, he's one of the top guys."

Seaborn, along with senior point guard Austin Tilghman and an emerging crop of younger players headed by freshman and MAAC All-Rookie selection Deion Hammond, will no doubt be prepared for their first step on the road to what could be an unlikely championship, coming against the one team Rice admitted hardly anyone wants to see on the other side of the court simply because of their commitment to fundamentals.

"Everybody knows in any game, you don't want to see Saint Peter's, and especially when it's an elimination game," he cautioned. "This game is going to be a defensive game. Both teams think they can guard each other. I think the first time, they guarded us better; the second time, we guarded them better. I've been looking at their scores and they've been holding people under what they normally score, and that's just what John Dunne does. We just have to play a solid game, not take bad shots, not take quick shots, and try to get great shots every time, which will be a struggle to do."

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