This series looks at some of the top small school teams that could be viable threats in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
A team that won 28 games, went 13-4 on the road, and beat three NCAA Tournament teams didn’t make the Big Dance last March. What is that team supposed to do to get a fair shake? Be in a power conference, I suppose.
That was the dilemma facing the Monmouth Hawks after they absorbed their crushing Selection Sunday verdict this past March. The Hawks spent all of November making a name for themselves, winning games at UCLA, Georgetown and Rutgers and neutral-court affairs against Notre Dame and USC. Their offense was electric, their bench full of the fun we’ve lost in sports. Their team as dangerous as any in the country.
Except that wasn’t enough.
Winning the MAAC regular season title wasn’t enough, because that’s not how things work for a small school program. A three-point loss to Iona in the MAAC Tournament championship game prevented the Hawks from fulfilling a destiny many thought inevitable in January and February. Instead, they had to settle for the NIT, the ugly stepsister of prizes for successful teams from one-bid conferences.
Lucky for the Hawks, they get another crack at it. Unlike most of these small schools that get one shot at greatness, Monmouth has a second chance. Nearly all of their players — 12 of 13 — return from last season.
Justin Robinson, a finalist for the Lou Henson Award, and his 19.3 points per game return for the Hawks. For some teams, having that one player returning would be plenty to build on. A high-scoring, sharpshooting point guard with a nose for the ball on defense and speed to disrupt any opposing team? Robinson alone would’ve been enough to make the Hawks a viable threat.
For King Rice, that’s not enough, and it doesn’t have to be.
Along with Robinson, 69.1 of Monmouth’s 79.5 points per game last season are back. Robinson, obviously, is the centerpiece. He’s expected to be not only the Preseason MAAC Player of the Year, but become one of the top players in college basketball.
With him is Micah Seaborn, who — as a freshman — was second on the team in scoring (13.2 points/game) and shot 38.6 percent from three. The backcourt that made the Hawks so dangerous returns, and with Seaborn having another year of experience, who knows how high they can fly?
To save some time, here’s Monmouth’s team stat sheet from last season. Take out the team’s third-leading scorer and leading rebounder Deon Jones (10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds). That’s it. One player is absent from one year to the next, which is unheard of these days at any level of college basketball, let alone a one-bid conference.
More Non-Conference Opportunities
This time around, the Hawks won’t surprise people. Last season, they were the feel good story of college basketball, the little team that could, which might be part of the reason they were able to beat UCLA on opening night. Take nothing away from what they did, but a surprise factor sometimes that plays to a team’s advantage. That advantage is now gone for Monmouth. Everybody’s aware of what the Hawks are capable of doing.
One advantage for Monmouth is that it hasn’t completely scared teams off. Though they did lose out on a game against Villanova, teams still want a chance to show they can stand up to the mighty Hawks.
Syracuse, South Carolina, Memphis and North Carolina are all stepping up to the plate and hosting Monmouth during the non-conference season. UNC has the most to lose in this situation, but Roy Williams has never been scared by a challenge, big or small.
That’s four opportunities for Monmouth to pull off big wins in the non-conference as it did last year. Unfortunately, one thing the selection committee proved this past March is that it doesn’t really seem to care if small-conference teams go 4-for-4 in marquee games; they might need to win the conference tournament to do anything with it.
Standing In Their Way
Last year’s thorn-in-the-side, Iona, will still be a threat, as it has been every year in the MAAC, but they’ll have to do it without A.J. English, one of the best players in conference history. The Gaels do return two double-digit scorers in Jordan Washington (14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds) and Deyshonee Much (13 points) as well as a couple other key pieces, but the Gaels will certainly be down their best man for the fight against Monmouth.
Manhattan, who was the the top threat to Iona before Monmouth became a national name, will also be a team to watch. The Jaspers will be down their top man (Shane Richards, 17.2 points per game), but they return the other three of their top four leading scorers from last season. They and Iona will be the top teams to watch trying to keep Monmouth out of the NCAA Tournament yet again.
Here We Go Again
All paths seem clear for Monmouth to make a serious run at — and then in — the NCAA Tournament. Of course, just getting there is 90 percent of the battle for a small program. The Hawks have what it takes to make a Florida Gulf Coast-like run to the Sweet 16, but they’ll do it with many more eyes watching and much more expected of them.
As we enter the 2016-’17 season, the Hawks will try to rectify the wrongs they were dealt last season. They’ll control their own destiny the entire way this season. They can make up for lost time.