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Monmouth Basketball Is More Than Just Bench Dances (Interview With HC King Rice)

If you haven’t heard of the Monmouth University Hawks, you will now.

I’ll admit, they’ve been hard to miss. The Monmouth Bench, now nationally known for its spotlight-stealing antics, has not only created a Twitter account with 16.1k followers, but has also made appearances on SportsCenter and FS1’s Garbage Time with Katie Nolan. A story in USA Today called them the “greatest bench squad in college basketball history”.

Monmouth’s antics on the court have been nothing short of impressive. The Hawks are 21-5 on the season, and have collected wins over Notre Dame, USC, UCLA, Rutgers and Georgetown. They’re the first team in program history to defeat a ranked opponent, a Big Ten team, a Big East team, and get votes in a national poll.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you should probably start.

The tricky thing is that I know why you haven’t been paying attention. Monmouth is a mid-major; the Hawks belong to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), a small Division 1 conference made up of schools from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

In college basketball, most seasons are defined by how well you do in the tournament. At places like Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, and other Power 7 (ACC, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) schools, the success of a season is determined by whether or not you win the tournament.

But at some schools–scratch that–most schools that don’t have the budget to spend six figures on each athlete (in 2014, the median amount of money spent by the ACC per athlete was a mind-boggling $128,576), seasons are really successful if you make the tournament.

Like other mid-major conferences, such as the Horizon, Sun Belt, Missouri Valley, West Coast, and Mid-American, the MAAC normally gets one NCAA Tournament berth, and that’s the winner of the conference tournament. Only twice in the history (1995 and 2012) of the conference has the MAAC received more than one bid to the tournament, meaning one team received an at-large bid.

Despite the fact that Monmouth is one of only three mid-major teams–the others are Chattanooga (Southern Conference) and SMU (AAC)–ranked in the top 40 of the RPI rankings (which is based on wins and losses and strength of schedule), and is ranked seventh in the mid-major top 25, there is a very real probability that Monmouth won’t make the tournament if they don’t win the MAAC.

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, made up of conference commissioners and school athletic directors, tends to favor big schools with okay records rather than small schools with favorable records. That’s why Ole Miss (SEC), who finished 21-13 and sixth in the SEC last season, received a tournament bid in 2015 over the Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley Conference), who finished 27-5 in a season in which they won 25 straight games.

That’s why there are always going to be articles after Selection Sunday about the best teams that didn’t make it to the tournament, and honestly, that’s why there’s always going to be the NIT.

I recently sat down with Monmouth coach King Rice, and asked him not only about Monmouth’s season so far, but also about what it’s like coaching at a mid-major school like Monmouth. Rice played four years under Dean Smith at North Carolina, and has previously coached at Providence, Oregon and Vanderbilt–that is, in the Big East, the Pac-12 and the SEC:

EB: In theory, the fate of your season could rest on one game to decide if you’ll advance to the tournament. Does that impact the way you prepare throughout the season, knowing that at the end of the day, it might all come down to just one game, one moment to determine if you’ll make it?

KR: We just go at it one game at a time. Our goal at first is to win the regular season championship and then after that, focus on the tournament. The tournament, and all the “one-bid”, who’s getting in, and at large bids, are all for all the people who are not basketball players to talk about. When you’re a basketball player, or a coach, all you worry about is the next game, and if we do what we’re supposed to do, our season doesn’t come down to the (MAAC) tournament.

EB: What’s the difference between coaching a mid-major and being on the bigger stage?

KR: Well, basketball is basketball, and the kids love to play. They all have the same dreams I had coming out (of college)–you want to make the pros, you want to take care of your family. It’s very similar, the level of play. That’s why you’ll always see upsets, because the smaller schools can beat the bigger schools. The biggest difference is the budget. It’s not the players, it’s the budgets. The Power 5 conferences spend 5 times as much as we spend. We’re one of the mid-major schools that has a really good deal and a good budget, but the major difference is the amount of money that the bigger schools get to use for their programs.

EB: Some people know you because of the bench, some people know you because you knocked off some big-time teams, and some may not really know you at all because you’re a mid-major team in a small conference. At the end of the day, how do you want people to remember what you’ve done this season, and what I’m sure you’ll continue to do?

KR: I think that we’re a group that really came together. We’re a group that really has great chemistry. We’re a group that does well on and off the court. We do well in the classroom, we carry ourselves the right way and we’re something that people can be proud of.

The Hawks have five games remaining on their schedule, and if Friday night’s win over Rider, which came down to a game-winning three in the final minutes from Monmouth’s star point guard Justin Robinson (averaging 20.3 ppg), showed anything, it’s that this final stretch won’t be easy. They still have to play Manhattan (L, 78-71 in Jan.) and Iona (W, 110-102 in Jan.), both of whom gave the Hawks their biggest in-conference tests during the regular season.

As of February 11, ESPN’s resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Monmouth in the NCAA tournament as a 10 seed. Lunardi also had eight ACC teams in his mock bracket. Nothing against the talent of the teams in the ACC, but that’s just about half of the entire conference. The annual Mock Selection held by the NCAA on February 12 gave Siena the MAAC conference bid, but also gave Monmouth the final at-large bid instead of LSU–a positive sign for the Hawks, and, quite frankly, mid-majors everywhere.

Will Monmouth win the MAAC? I don’t know. Will they receive an at-large bid if they don’t win the MAAC? I don’t know. In all honesty, their record will speak for itself, and it will come down to how the committee interprets their good wins versus their bad losses. But I have the answer to one question about Monmouth: Do they deserve a shot at the Big Dance? Yes.

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