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Mike Lopresti | | February 12, 2019

From 0-12 to MAAC leaders, how Monmouth basketball turned around its once bleak season

Kansas State makes a move and Kentucky is up to No. 4 in Andy Katz's Power 36

Want to see the resuscitation of the year in college basketball? Look who’s leading the MAAC.

The Monmouth Hawks, who six weeks ago were 0-12.

The Monmouth Hawks, who were the 350th Division I team in the nation to finally win a game this season. It came on New Year’s Eve.

The Monmouth Hawks, who lost to Saint Joseph’s despite shooting 65 percent in the second half . . . lost to Hofstra despite outscoring the Pride 28-4 in points in the paint . . . lost to Yale despite holding the Bulldogs scoreless for 7:12 in the first half — and for 7:44 in the second. Always something.

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Or as coach King Rice said over the phone Tuesday, looking back on the dark days, “There’s no way I felt like I had an 0-12 team, even when we were sitting there at 0-12. I felt like we had enough talent, I felt like our kids worked extremely hard . . .

“For a coach, you never plan on being 0-12. A coach might look at our schedule (which included the likes of Kentucky, West Virginia and surging Hofstra) and think we could lose seven or eight of those. But you also think we can maybe win some of those. When you lose all of them, the people it hurts are the kids, because they’re kids. They start questioning everything.”

Their confidence, their ability, their work habits. Everything.

Not anymore.

Now the Hawks have won four in a row and are atop their league with a 9-4 Metro Atlantic record. Now they’re seeking a conference championship, instead of trying not to drown.

“Like I was telling everybody, although we were 0-12, it never defined who we really were,” leading scorer Ray Salnave said. “Who we are, we’re finally showing it. We’re a bunch of hungry dudes that don’t give up.”

Their metrics might still wheeze. The week began with them 335th in the nation in scoring, and 332nd in shooting, and 336th in assist-turnover ratio. But they’re playing solid defense, holding seven league opponents to 60 points or under.

They’re finding a way, when before they didn’t. Suddenly, everyone else in the MAAC is chasing them.

But first, how bleak is the world, when you’re 0-12?

For the coach, for instance.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of things in my life on the court and off the court,” Rice said. “I had to tell myself just like I tell my players — I had to get out of my own way. Sometimes I get too frustrated, and then I just get mad. When you get mad, you’re not good at your job.”

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As the defeats and pain mounted, Dean Smith’s former point guard started hearing support from other coaches, many of them members of the North Carolina family. “I have three saved messages from Coach (Roy) Williams, telling me, 'King, you’re good at this, just keep doing what you’re doing.'

“I said to myself I have to make sure I enjoy I get to do this. Not a lot of guys get to be a Division I coach. And I’ve got a great job at Monmouth. I’ve got a great boss, I’ve got teams that listen and go to school and graduate. Every part was great, except we weren’t winning games. I could tell I was too frustrated. I had to step back and take my own advice.

“It was probably at the right time.”

And for the players?

“I mean, 0-12, that’s self-explanatory,” Salnave said. “On campus, people that used to talk a lot would kind of side-eye you. Or they’d walk with their heads down when they saw you approaching. It was tough on everybody.”

Salnave said Christmas break was key. No classes, no students lowering their heads on campus. Just the huddled masses of a beleaguered — and winless — basketball team.

“We spent a lot of time with each other,” Salnave said. “That whole time period, it was just a bunch of tough battles, everybody pushing each other to each other’s limits, even further than that. I think that time really brought us more together.”

Still, they needed one game to go right. Just one to stop the bleeding.

New Year’s Eve, and a trip to Penn, who was 10-3 and had already beaten Villanova. “No one was looking at that game thinking that would be our first win,” Rice said. “It came down to the last seconds of overtime, the score tied, and Salnave with the ball, driving to the basket. “Thank God, the ref didn’t call charging,” Salnave can say now. “It could have gone either way.”

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This time, it went Monmouth’s way. Salnave basket. Monmouth 76, Penn 74. One victory can mean an awful lot, when it’s the first, and the date is Dec. 31.

Rice: “We’ve have a lot of success over the past few years, and that’s what you do it for; you want the kids to be smiling. You want to see that on their faces, and we hadn’t seen that in a long time.

“When it finally happened, it was a feeling of relief, but it was excitement, also. If we could beat a team as capable as Penn, we have a chance against anybody we’re going to see in our league.”

Salnave: “Guys were hugging each other. Like . . . finally. I remember I saw Nick (teammate Rutherford) on the ground, and he was just crying. Then when we got into the locker room and a couple of other guys were crying. It hit me right about then. I shed a couple.”

“We could actually do it. We just needed to believe it.”

There were still bumps ahead. The Hawks were beaten 89-83 in two overtimes by Quinnipiac, but only after they had scored 17 points in the final 54 seconds of regulation, coming from 12 down in the last minute to force overtime. They won four in a row — including another last-second winner by Salnave against Iona — but then were drilled twice.

Salnave’s approach landed him in the doghouse with Rice and was briefly suspended. He’s coming off the bench now, and earning his way back to being one of Monmouth’s main men. He had 17 points in the 61-49 win over Fairfield last week that pushed the Hawks into first place.

Salnave’s individual path parallels his team — zigs and zags on an arduous journey that now seems to be going the right direction.

“Ray is a tremendous kid, and a really, really good basketball player,” Rice said. “I told him the other day, sometimes he did like I did when I was 20 years old — get in his own way. Then you don’t get to see some of the great things Ray can do. We’re starting to see the kid that he is, and the basketball player that he is.”

So what now? Could an 0-12 team really, truly end up as a conference champion? Or is that looking too far ahead, especially on a road that has had so many stomach-churning curves?

“Once we get everybody playing together, I think this team is really scary,” Salnave said.

Rice prefers to go a step at a time.

“That’s what I did when we were down, I just looked at the next game. But if we’re playing hypothetical I think it would be amazing. It would solidify some things in their minds. When you get knocked down and you think it’s the worst thing that you’ve ever dealt with, there’s always good things coming. People told me that as a kid, and sometimes you don’t believe it. When we were down, I just kept telling them, 'Guys you are good dudes. You are from good families. You’re doing all the right things. If we stay together, good things will happen for us.'"

 “We truly stayed together and now it’s really turned the corner, and it’s fun to see, because we’re still getting better.”

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