Monmouth's growing pains last season prompted King Rice to admit he was to blame for some of Hawks' adversity, but veteran head coach insists his team will be better this season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
One minute, King Rice and his program were on top of the world, winning 55 games over two seasons, collecting within its grasp a pair of regular season conference championships and trips to the National Invitation Tournament along the way.
The next, the Hawks picked up the pieces after graduating a program-changing senior class, enduring a tumultuous first season of a rebuild, yet simultaneously laying the foundation for what could very well be a group that leaves with similar accolades by the time its collective tenure reaches a conclusion.
Such is the cyclical nature of mid-major basketball, one in which Monmouth -- the giant-killing, bench-celebrating, attention-grabbing phenomenon of recent years -- is back on an upswing after an 11-20 beginning to life without a core led by point guard turned transcendent program legend Justin Robinson.
"With this group, we needed to start over and start fresh, and I didn't do the best job with that," Rice said of the Hawks' recalibration last season, one marked by two separate injuries to junior guard Micah Seaborn, projected to be an all-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference talent for a second straight campaign.
"Every year is a new year, regardless of if you're a returning team that has a lot of guys back and you're picked at the top, if you have a team that lost a lot of guys and you've got a lot of new guys that you're counting on. Whichever team you have, each year is a new year, and you truly have to start over every year. We've got a group of guys that did not like how our season went last year. Everybody's holding everybody accountable."
The infusion of young talent such as MAAC All-Rookie selection Deion Hammond, as well as the emergence of fellow freshmen Melik Martin, Marcus McClary, and George Papas over the second half of the season to an experienced core of role players the likes of Austin Tilghman and Zac Tillman projected to bring a prosperous long-term future to West Long Branch -- and still does -- but Rice was quick to point out that the initiative to assume leadership roles did not cultivate itself rapidly last season, yet has taken root this offseason.
"Those guys were leaders coming into the program, but they felt like they were young, so they didn't feel like their voices were as loud or weren't going to be accepted as much," he intimated. "We worked on that a lot with them, and those guys are leading in a lot of different ways now. We want them to be better as sophomores than they were as freshmen, and all of them have made that step already."
"All four of those kids had great freshman years," said Rice. "Everybody gets caught up in having impact and this and that, but those kids -- from when they got here to the end of the year -- have gotten better. George got mono in the middle of the season -- he played 45 or 50 minutes in our (four-overtime) game against Penn and then he got sick -- it just kind of happened. The impact that they made in our program -- Deion was on the All-Rookie team, Marcus really got better as the year went along -- you make big strides between your freshman and sophomore seasons, and right now, they look like different kids."
A parallel can be made between this coming season and the growth that Monmouth made between the 2013-14 season -- the program's first in the MAAC after departing the Northeast Conference -- and 2014-15, when the Hawks went from an 11-21 outfit to one that won 18 games and came within one win of a conference championship game, falling victim to a record-setting three-point barrage from Iona in the semifinals. Regardless, Rice -- always blunt and brutally honest in his self-critiques -- did not shy away from admitting that he was partly to blame for last year's struggles, and has taken preventive steps to ensure that the next iteration of Monmouth basketball will thrive compared to that which came before it.
"I'm not a guy that makes a lot of excuses," he said. "We had a lot of talent on our team last year, and I didn't do the best job as the coach. I need to be a better coach, I need to do a better job of reaching my young men on a daily basis, I need to do a better job of making sure my staff reaches our team. I don't think I created an environment last year for these kids to have fun, and that really showed through in areas when you watch our games."
"This happened to me when I had Justin and Josh (James) and all those guys, too. At some point, I felt like I was taking the fun out of it. I had to get out of the way a little bit to allow these kids to flourish and shine, and we're at that point again. I need to give them some space to flourish and shine, and I understand that more clearly now than I did at the start of last year. I'm making those changes with myself and my staff so that we can be better coaches, and if we're better coaches, our team will have better success."