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Mike Lopresti | | December 3, 2015

Monmouth basketball is having fun and winning

  Monmouth has started the season 4-2.

They have the most famous bench in college basketball, with choreographed celebrations that have become must-see TV, and light up Twitter.

Their star is 5-8. Their first home game isn't until Dec. 13 and the second is not until January.

On paper, their statistics would scare nobody. This week they were 263rd in the nation in field goal shooting, 313th in rebound margin. They have played six games, and trailed at halftime in five of them. But they are 4-2 and have beaten UCLA, Notre Dame and USC, picking off one blue blood after another.

As Justin Robinson, the pint-sized point machine who is averaging nearly 25 a game said this week, ``We’re surprising everybody but ourselves.’’

So how’d the Monmouth Hawks get to be the darlings of the early season? And how much fun are they having?

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“This has been great for our whole school,’’ coach King Rice said. ``I feel like we have a great university here, and I’m not sure everybody knows about it. Usually through sports, you can get people to learn about your school.’’

``My athletic director has been telling me since I’ve been here that I need to enjoy things more. I’m trying to. But I’m cautious because it’s only six games into the season.’’

Here are some things we should know about Monmouth. It’s in New Jersey, walking distance from the Atlantic Ocean, but light years from the big time in college basketball. The Hawks had never beaten a ranked opponent, never received one vote in a poll. Until now.

Their coach once played point guard for Dean Smith. This is his fifth season, and in the early years, Rice was sending his teams against the big guys and getting thrashed. He remembers 108-56 with Syracuse, and 71-38 against Maryland. But gradually, Monmouth grew tougher, stronger, more confident. By last season, the Hawks were pushing West Virginia and Maryland.

So it seems. Monmouth opened the season in Pauley Pavilion and promptly knocked off UCLA in overtime, outscoring the Bruins 41-14 in bench points and winning the turnover battle 23-7.

``When we pulled that out in overtime,’’ Rice said, ``I think all of our kids said, `Whoa, we can really do some things here.’’

Three days later, they went down the freeway and lost 101-90 to USC. Jetted east and beat Drexel in Philadelphia. Next was the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, where they upset ranked Notre Dame with a 12-0 spread in fast break points and 19-0 in bench points, pushed Dayton before losing by three, then knocked off USC 83-73 in a rematch.

They finished third in the tournament, but Robinson was still named the MVP with 77 points in three games. The little Hawk who could. How would the heavyweights know they were in imminent danger, when they looked up and they were facing a 5-8 guard from Monmouth?

``I think he’s surprising everybody around the country, except for the people that already knew him,’’ King said. ``If you saw a picture of him at 14, you’d say there was no way this kid was going to play varsity basketball. Yes he was.

``It’s been a long road for him. No one believed in him, and now everybody’s seeing if you continue to work at your craft, it does not matter what school you’re at. If you put in the work, you will have success.’’

At last check, Robinson was sixth in the nation in scoring. He also had 18 steals.

``The main focus for me is to just win basketball games,’’ Robinson said, adding he has had to prove himself all his life. ``It’s made me more confident, because I know people are going to come in underestimating me.’’

Rice rotates in lots of players and an indispensable weapon has been depth, with a 145-72 advantage in bench points. Hence, early deficits keep turning into late leads.  ``By the end of the game,’’ Rice said, ``I think a lot of teams are getting tired.’’

Freshman guard Micah Seaborn is the other Hawk averaging in double figures, and Rice mentioned Collin Stewart, Josh James and Austin Tilghman as players who have or could be starting, but have willingly accepted roles off the bench. ``Everybody’s together on this team,’’ Rice said. ``If we keep our chemistry right, I think we’ll see a lot of good basketball at Monmouth.’’

Even with this schedule? Rice said 12 road games in the first 13 are the product of a couple of home opponents pulling out at the last minute, and also the difficulty of getting teams to come to his place. Next season will be more balanced, but for now, the Hawks just have to deal with it.

``I truly feel bad for our fans because they really want to support us, but this year people would not come in and play us, so I just took the games I could get,’’ he said. ``As a coach, you say, `Hey guys, it’s just basketball. We shouldn’t be in awe of the arena or the name on the front of the chest. If we play the way we play, we’ll see how it happens at the end of the day.

Wearing home white against Wagner on Dec. 13 will be nice, but then come four more away games. ``It’s only a quick stop,’’ Rice said. ``But I know our fans understand.’’

And they have to love all the publicity Monmouth is getting, even if it’s for four guys who have combined to play three minutes and score no points. How the public has taken to the floor show of Dan Pillari, cousin Louie Pillari, Greg Noack and Tyler Robinson – who is drawing even more SportsCenter time than his brother Justin gets for scoring all the points. When it comes to bench celebrations for a big Monmouth play, they have become the Fab Four.

It’s a never-ending cabaret, and strangers coast to coast debate favorites. One time, they’re archers, right out of a Hunger Games movie. The next, one of them pretends to be a fish who dies, gets held up by two others, while the fourth snaps a picture. There is the human scissors, the simulated CPR. For every crucial Monmouth moment, an accompanying sideline skit.

``I think it’s just tremendous. I keep telling everybody all those kids are really good players,’’ Rice said. His only request to them is to keep it clean, no being disrespectful to opponents. He has never seen one of their offerings live during a game. ``I must be pretty focused,’’ he said. ``As soon as I get home, I look at my phone and it’s, `Oh my goodness. They were doing all of THAT?’’’

Wonder what Dean would say about all this? Rice played for Smith at North Carolina, finishing third on the all-time Tar Heels assist list. ``Everything I do on a daily basis,’ he said, ``has something to do with Coach Smith. Hopefully I’m representing him the right way, and the Carolina family the right way.

``He would tell me to enjoy this, but make sure I’m prepared. And that’s what I’m doing.’’

Monmouth heads this weekend to conference opponents Canisius and Niagara. Later is a trip to Georgetown. So it goes. Right now, the Hawks are just taking a moment to smell the roses of national attention, as well they should.

``Please keep watching,’’ Rice said over the phone, ``because I really think we can play better basketball.’’

We all surely will. If only to see what the bench is up to next.

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