What Happened to Monmouth?

By Kevin Sweeney

Two years ago, Monmouth sat atop every Cinderella watchlist. The Hawks were coming off a season in which they recorded five wins over high-major opponents and were snubbed for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. They followed that season up with a second consecutive MAAC regular season title, going 18-2 in the conference before falling to Siena in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Those Hawks, headlined by 2-time MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, would go down as one of the better mid-majors to never make the tournament.

Despite the incredible disappointment of not getting over the NCAA Tournament hump, the Monmouth program looked to be in great shape. They had beautiful facilities close to the Jersey Shore, an excited fanbase, and a national cache most mid-majors could only dream of thanks in no small part to their dancing bench:

However, by far the biggest reason for excitement was the presence of head coach King Rice. The former North Carolina Tar Heel looked to be a star in the coaching business, with his gleaming smile drawing the attention of cameras time and time again as Monmouth downed opponent after opponent. Rice’s club played an incredibly exciting brand of basketball that featured tons of guards who could make plays off the bounce and light it up from the outside. His name repeatedly came up for job openings, with a rumored deal with Duquesne never materializing. Meanwhile, buzz continued that Rice could be the man to replace Roy Williams at his alma mater in the coming years.

Skip ahead about 21 months from the day Nico Clareth lit up the Times Union Center on one leg while Rice sat back and watched making an adjustment, and Rice couldn’t be further from the UNC job. His Hawks are 0-10 with six of those losses coming by 15 or more points and are one of just five remaining winless teams in D1 basketball. They sit at 346th out of 353 teams in the most recent NCAA NET rankings, while Bart Torvik’s T-rank doesn’t project a win for Monmouth until at least January 5.

So how did this rags-to-riches story go back to rags so fast?

The clearest answer is the early departure of Micah Seaborn. Seaborn had been the young star of the two elite MU teams, and was seen as the bridge to keep Monmouth near the top of the MAAC while they developed a new core. Instead, Seaborn missed much of last season with various injuries before leaving school with one year of eligibility remaining to join the pro ranks. Seaborn was drafted into the G-League by the Grand Rapids Drive but is not currently on their roster.

However, the program’s flaws in the post-Robinson era go far beyond Seaborn’s early exit. Rice simply hasn’t recruited well enough to win games, especially given all the momentum the program had. Rather than take advantage of that momentum and establish itself as a powerhouse in the northeast, Rice and his staff has really struggled to land high-end talent. Per VerbalCommits.com, Monmouth’s roster has the lowest average star rating in the MAAC. In the two classes since Robinson graduated, Rice hasn’t had a big recruiting win over a higher-level program.In his 2017 class, one in which he had plenty of playing time to offer, Rice signed 3 scholarship freshmen: Deion Hammond (offers from Canisius and Quinnipiac), Marcus McClary (Monmouth was his only offer), and Melik Martin (originally signed at D2 Lincoln). Offers don’t mean everything (Robinson had no other offers out of high school), but not being able to capitalize on program momentum to land some impact freshmen is a big missed opportunity.

Rice hasn’t helped himself on the recruiting trail with his actions over the last two frustrating seasons. Last season, Rice drew criticism for ridiculing a student radio broadcaster after a loss, per a story in the Asbury Park Press. He has also criticized his program’s fans multiple times throughout his tenure, including after their most recent loss to Hofstra.

The worst misstep came this past June, when Rice pulled the scholarship of rising senior forward Pierre Sarr without providing a reason. Run-offs have become a part of college basketball, but Monmouth had multiple available scholarships when Sarr’s scholarship was pulled. To make matters worse, Sarr was one of the more highly-regarded recruits in program history, coming from NJ prep powerhouse Roselle Catholic. Beyond the simple criticism of not letting a guy finish his career, why would you run off a player from an influential program that you hope to land players from in the future? If you are a prep coach in the tri-state area, are you sending your kid to King Rice?

If you take out the three seasons that Justin Robinson was an all-MAAC first teamer from Rice’s coaching record, he is 44-92 as a head coach and has lost 20 or more games in every season without Robinson. I think it’s fair to say that Rice isn’t a very good coach.

Now, the Monmouth program is in a brutally difficult spot. Rice is under contract through the 2021-22 season, and few mid-major programs have the means to buy out more than one year of salary. You could stick it out a couple years and hope that Rice finds another Robinson, but allowing the program to remain in futility until you can afford to buy Rice out would make those back-to-back MAAC titles even more of a distant memory.

While it’s not entirely clear what it would cost to fire Rice after this season, a buyout may be prohibitive after this season. But without a change, it’s hard for me to see this Monmouth program turning things back around.

Week 3 Breakdown Pod

Brad and Kevin give their takes on a big week of action in college hoops! Topics include some transfer analysis after Jon Rothstein took some heat for comments about Rui Hachimura, Oregon continuing to fade and the Arizona schools looking like the Pac-12’s best, Texas laying an egg against Radford, and Nevada looking legit. As always, they pick all the upcoming week’s best games as well. Check it out!

 

In Big Win Over Loyola, Nevada Lives Up to the Hype… and More

By Kevin Sweeney

Porter Moser ran out of good things to say about the Nevada team that had just handled his Loyola club.

He talked about the Wolf Pack’s experience, their length, their strength, their depth. He talked about what a terrific trio Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, and Jordan Caroline is. How adding the monstrous Trey Porter gave them an inside edge they didn’t have last year.

Finally, Moser exhaled and said five words that anyone who was at Gentile Arena on Tuesday night was thinking.

“They are really, really good.”

Hype for this Nevada team has been growing since the Martins and Caroline announced in late May that they would return to school for one final season of college basketball, rather than head to the professional ranks. Those decisions, combined with the previous recruiting coups of the aforementioned Porter (Old Dominion) and McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown, made Nevada a consensus top ten team coming into the season coming off a crazy run to the Sweet 16 the year before.

Still, there were doubts. After all, it’s pretty unbelievable that a program that went 9-22 just four seasons ago could be this good, this fast. Pundits questioned the team’s chemistry: Eric Musselman is known for playing a tight rotation, but he had eight players on his roster who had averaged more than 13 points per game in Division 1 basketball, plus a 5-star in Brown. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and those outside the program wondered how Musselman could handle that many egos. Some suggested the somewhat fluky way the Wolf Pack had advanced through the NCAA Tournament (an overtime win over Texas and a miraculous 22-point comeback against Cincinnati) was causing people to overrate the Pack. Basketball analysts debated how Musselman’s pace-and-space, 4-out-1-in offense would look with more bigs and less shooters.

A blowout home loss to Washington in a charity exhibition game and a fairly ugly display against D2 San Francisco State in which Nevada trailed at halftime did little to quell the criticism.

But when the lights came on for real, the Wolf Pack have answered the bell. The seven games they’ve played haven’t been a murderer’s row, but after seeing them play in person on Tuesday night, I’m sold.

Nevada is elite. They might even be better than the preseason consensus. A Final Four is a firmly attainable goal. Here’s why:

Nevada has the personnel to match up with virtually every team in college basketball. Tuesday night, size was most important. The two most important players for Loyola were 6-1 PG Clayton Custer and 6-9 big Cameron Krutwig. The Wolf Pack went to their tall-while-still-switchable lineup of the Martins, Caroline, 6-7 Tre’Shawn Thurman, and Porter. The goal? Put tons of length on Custer to make it difficult for him to get shots off or get to the rim, while using Porter’s gigantic wingspan and strength to make the efficient post scorer Krutwig work for everything he got down low. Nevada executed both of those plans to perfection, and on offense got anything they wanted against a stingy Loyola defense. The Wolf Pack didn’t rely much on the 3-point shot (6-14 on the game) after ranking in the top 30 nationally in attempts per game last season. Rather, they focused on getting to the rim and sharing the ball. Key in that was Caleb Martin, who got off to a blistering start with 15 points in the first ten minutes of game action. Known as an elite 3-point threat, Martin attacked more off the bounce to great success.

“I think dating back to last year, I wasn’t as aggressive. I wanted everyone to be aggressive, it wasn’t just me. I saw openings and I took them.” Caleb Martin said postgame on the team’s attacking mindset on the offensive end. “Last couple games, I think I settled a lot from the three-point line and I wasn’t shooting too good a percentage so I wanted to get inside, get to the rim, and make moves off the dribble.” 

The gameplan was much different in Nevada’s previous game, a 110-87 victory over a hot UMass team in Las Vegas. UMass is a team built around tremendous guards, so Musselman trotted out a lineup similar to what the Wolf Pack did for much of last season. Thurman and Caroline played the 5 and the 4 respectively, with Porter swapped out for a shooter and creator. Portland transfer Jazz Johnson and Wagner transfer Corey Henson each played over 20 minutes in the game and were productive, combining for 18 points on 7-9 shooting. Meanwhile, the Nebraska-Omaha import Thurman exploded for 22 points and 8 rebounds to help lead the Pack to a victory. How many teams’ 4th or 5th offensive option is capable of impacting the game like that?

“They all understand that we have a lot of talent on this team and the only way it’s going to work for guys to share the ball and get multiple people touches,” Musselman said “We have to look at the mismatches and see what they sense for us, and then it’s up to these guys to put the team in front of everything else and that’s what they’ve done.”

The glue that has kept the offense together has been Cody Martin, who became the Pack’s full-time point guard after Lindsey Drew got hurt in February and has thrived in the role. Cody has slashed a hyper-efficient .542/.375/.813 so far this season with a 4.78 assist to turnover ratio. He has also improved as an outside shooter after making just 15 triples all of last season.

One play that really stood out came in early in the second half, when Loyola had made a push to cut the deficit to 13. With the shot clock running down, Cody Martin’s crossover dribble had Loyola guard Cooper Kaifes staggering backwards before draining a dagger three. If Cody can hit that shot consistently, watch out. Here’s the shot (at 27 second mark):

Meanwhile, there have seemingly been no issues getting complete buy-in from the bench players on much smaller roles than perhaps they had anticipated when they signed on to join the Pack.

“There’s no fighting, there’s no attitude, none of that,” Caleb Martin said. “They just do whatever it takes for us to win as a group so far.”

Brown and Bryant transfer Nisre Zouzoua have been the ones shorted the most in terms of minutes, with Brown only averaging 14 minutes and Zouzoua playing just 9 per night. Both should return next season though and have much bigger roles as the Wolf Pack reload.

The versatility and size that Musselman added this offseason has helped Nevada improve immensely on the defensive end. The Pack ranked 108th nationally in adjusted defense per KenPom last season. Chris Murray of Nevada Sports Net noted preseason that in the past ten years, only one team with a defense not rated in the top 50 on KenPom reached a Final Four. Nevada’s mark so far this season? 47th.

Moser said that the ability for Nevada to switch virtually every ball screen with so many interchangeable athletes on the floor, alongside the incredible length the Wolf Pack has especially with Porter on the floor, shrinks the floor for opposing offenses.

“I thought Nevada was just so physically imposing defensively,” Moser said.

The final piece the Pack has that other teams can’t compete with is experience. All five starters are 5th-year seniors, 22 and 23 year old young men in an era of college basketball in which youth rules. Nevada has 5 players who have played in at least 100 college basketball games. They’ve played in NCAA Tournaments, conference title games, and road games in all kinds of tough atmospheres. The entire core could have professional contracts right now, whether it be in the US or Europe. Nothing will fluster this group. We saw how the game sped up on RJ Barrett in the final minutes against Gonzaga in Maui. That won’t happen with the ball in Cody Martin’s hands.

Nevada has it all. They have the pieces to match up nicely against anyone, going big or small. They have guys who can get their own shot. They are playing great defense. And they’ve been there before.

So yeah, I’d agree with Porter Moser on this one.

They are really, really good.

Nevada Rides Hot Start to Revenge Victory At Loyola

By Kevin Sweeney

For all intents and purposes, it was over at the first media timeout.

In one of the most talked-about mid-major games of the season and a rematch of last season’s Sweet 16, #6 Nevada blitzed Loyola early and the Ramblers never had a big run in them, as the Wolf Pack claimed a 79-65 victory Tuesday night at Gentile Arena.

“We stared at the [Final Four] banner today in shootaround,” Eric Musselman said postgame. While last season’s defeat wasn’t discussed directly before the game, it was clear that the Wolf Pack, especially veteran cogs Caleb & Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline, were out for revenge. Caleb Martin said a picture of the banner was on a pregame slideshow for 5-10 minutes while the team got dressed.

“We had a chip on our shoulder, we had something to prove,” Caleb Martin said. “Obviously it’s not going to get that game back from last year, but it was a good to come to their place and play another game.”

Playing in front of a raucous sell-out crowd that saw students lining up hours in advance to secure their seat, the Ramblers were never able to truly capitalize on the home court energy. Nevada scored 14 of the game’s first 18 points and led by as many as 20 in the opening period, riding an explosive 17 first-half points from redshirt senior Caleb Martin. Martin had 15 in the first 10:15 of game action and looked locked in from the get-go as he looked for revenge from last season’s Sweet 16 defeat.

Loyola would regain its footing after the disastrous start, riding 5th-year senior Marques Townes’ 12 first-half points to re-energize the crowd and keep Loyola within some kind of striking distance. A triple by freshman Cooper Kaifes got the Ramblers back within 12 late in the first half with a chance to gain momentum into halftime, but Nevada had the answer with four unanswered to go into the half up 16.

That established a common theme– every Loyola push was responded to with a silencer or two by the Wolf Pack. Whether it was an awkward floater by big man Trey Porter or a dagger three by Caleb Martin, the Pack always had an answer.

“I didn’t think we quit. I thought we battled. I thought we played our tails off,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said. “Every time we tried to claw back, they answered the bell.” Townes attributed Loyola’s inability to get back into the game with not getting stops at the defensive end, noting that the Ramblers got just one “gap” (a term Loyola uses for 3 consecutive defensive stops) all game.

The 6-11 grad transfer Porter, who wasn’t a part of last year’s run, was huge in this one. He impacted the game on both ends, holding star Loyola big Cameron Krutwig to just 5-11 shooting while posting 14 points and 10 rebounds on the offensive end. Moser quipped that he wasn’t sure if Krutwig had missed six shots all season, crediting the addition of Porter’s length as an area where Nevada had improved from last season.

“He did a great job of walling up and altering shots,” Musselman said. “When he plays that good defensively, we’re really a different team.”

Both Krutwig and senior point guard Clayton Custer were seemingly bothered by the length Nevada trotted out. No one in the Nevada starting lineup was listed smaller than 6-7. Custer twice had shots blocked from behind from the Martins.

“I thought Nevada was just so physically imposing defensively,” Moser said. “If you do get to the rim, there was like three sets of arms to block a shot.” Moser noted several times the experience of this Nevada team, with five 5th-year seniors making up the starting lineup and just one player (5-star freshman Jordan Brown) in the regular playing rotation that isn’t at least in his 4th year of college.

That comes in sharp contrast to Loyola, which played three freshmen and two sophomores regular minutes. One freshman that answered the bell tonight was Cooper Kaifes, a shooting guard who posted 11 points in 24 minutes of action.

“I thought Cooper Kaifes was absolutely not afraid of the moment,” Moser said. “That was a huge bright spot.”

Nevada was led by Caleb Martin’s 21 and Cody Martin’s 20 points to go along with 7 assists. Champaign, IL native Jordan Caroline posted a workmanlike 15 points and 6 rebounds in a homecoming of sorts. Caroline had several family members at the game. The Wolf Pack move to 7-0 on the season with a tough stretch upcoming featuring tilts with USC, Arizona State, Utah, and mid-major powers Grand Canyon and South Dakota State in the next 6 games.

Townes’ 24 points and 9 rebounds led the way for Loyola, which falls to 4-3 on the season. Custer was limited to just 4-11 shooting for 10 points, while Krutwig needed 11 shots for his 11 points. The Ramblers are back in action against UIC this weekend.

Sophomore guard Lucas Williamson is dealing with hand swelling and will get x-rays, Moser said. He noted that the swelling was similar to the swelling experienced by Ben Richardson when the since-graduated guard broke his hand last fall.

Duke Goes Down, Nova Comes Back, Virginia is Virginia

Today on the show, we have a loaded pod breaking down the always-busy Feast Week. First, they break down the Maui Invitational and how Duke’s freshmen fell to Gonzaga. Then, they get into Kansas’ big win over Tennessee, Virginia winning at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and Villanova grabbing a huge win over Florida State in Orlando. Finally, they talk the lack of potential mid-major at-large bids and why that trend has continued to develop, and as always make their picks for the week ahead.

Ten Freshmen Making Huge Early Impacts

By Kevin Sweeney

If you’ve watched college basketball this season (literally any game), you’ve seen plenty of talk about Duke’s sensational freshman class. It seems that every single game, the faces of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish are plastered on the screen at some point or another, allowing the broadcasters to salivate at the potential that group has.

While those three talented freshmen are already household names, many other talented youngsters are busy making a name for themselves on the national scene, and in the meantime establishing themselves as building blocks for the future of their programs. Here’s 10 of the best freshmen in the land:

Antoine Davis (Detroit Mercy)

Stats: 30.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, .474/.527/.833 in 6 games

The son of new Detroit head coach Mike Davis is a high-major talent, plain and simple. Davis was originally committed to play at Houston before having a change of hear and wanting to play for his father, originally at Texas Southern and then at Detroit. Davis is shooting the ball at an absurd 53% clip from downtown at high volume and is being given the freedom to create virtually all of the Titans’ offense. UDM has rattled off 3 straight wins behind huge performances from Davis to get to .500 on the season, quite the achievement given the mess the elder Davis walked into in June.

Lamine Diane (Cal State Northridge)

Stats: 24.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, .488/.000/.475 in 4 games

A redshirt freshman who spent his high school career at prep power Findlay Prep, Diane has been a revelation early in his tenure with the Matadors. With a new coach in Mark Gottfried taking over without much talent in hand, CSUN has relied heavily on Diane, and the Senegalese big man has responded. After opening his career with 34 points and 7 assists against New Mexico, it was clear the Matadors had something, and the production hasn’t dropped off much since. He should compete for all-conference honors in the Big West from the get-go.

Jalen Pickett (Siena)

Stats: 15.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, .458/.410/.714 in 6 games

After watching him for 6 games, it’s incomprehensible that Pickett was available in mid-May. Jamion Christian certainly wasn’t complaining, quickly making the 6-4 point guard his first recruit at Siena. Not only did signing Pickett help re-establish connections between the Siena program and the elite Albany City Rocks AAU program, but it landed Christian a building block star. Pickett plays with poise beyond his years, operates smoothly in the pick and roll, and has a knack for clutch shots. He’s also a good fit for Christian’s “Mayhem” style, racking up 7 steals Saturday in a defeat to Colgate. Jackson Hoy of “The Stepien” put together a thread on why he believes that Pickett could be a sneaky NBA Draft prospect down the line:

Obi Toppin (Dayton)

Stats: 11.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.0 apg, .689/1.000/.750 in 6 games

The ultra-athletic Toppin was in the headlines this summer after video of him working out with several NBA players in New York City surfaced this summer, and Toppin has done nothing to quell the hype since the season begun. The redshirt freshman began his UD career with 18 points and 10 rebounds against North Florida, starting in place of the injured Josh Cunningham. In the Battle 4 Atlantis, Toppin came off the bench but was impactful, posting 13 points against Virginia. He’s a star in the making in the A10.

Umoja Gibson (North Texas)

Stats: 16.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, .520/.537/.808

Gibson played in a pair of games last season before suffering a season-ending injury, and has taken advantage of his second chance at a first impression thus far. In the absence of star guard Roosevelt Smart, Gibson has provided a huge scoring spark for the Mean Green. He’s an elite shooter at 54% from downtown on nearly 7 attempts per game, and is capable simply taking over games when he gets hot. Grant McCasland has a young star on his hands.

Grayson Murphy, Caleb Hollander, and Nick Muszynski (Belmont)

Stats (5 games):

Muszynski: 16.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, .679/.000/.750
Hollander: 13.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, .614/.565/.400
Murphy: 12.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6.4 apg, .511/.273/.643

A trio of redshirt freshmen, Rick Byrd has a special young core at Belmont. Murphy is the prototypical PG for Byrd, a pass-first guy who makes big shots late in games. Meanwhile, a pair of impressive bigs in Muszynski and Hollander pose significant challenges for opposing defenses, with the 6-10 Muszynski an excellent passer and post scorer while Hollander is an elite floor-spacer at the stretch 4 spot. Combine this type of trio with OVC POY candidate Dylan Windler, and it’s no secret why the Bruins are 5-0 and well on their way to their 10th consecutive 20+ win season.

Neemias Queta (Utah State)

Stats: 8.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.3 apg, .588/.000/.722 in 6 games

First-year head coach Craig Smith signed Smith in late August, and the Portuguese import has been a game-changer for the 5-1 Aggies. Queta has been a force down low on both ends, posting a 24-point outburst against Saint Mary’s while averaging 2.5 blocks per game. Queta still needs to add weight and learn to defend without fouling, but he may have been the steal of the summer for a USU frontcourt that desperately needed reinforcements.

AJ Green (Northern Iowa)

Stats: 18.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.7 apg, .452/.341/.905 in 6 games

A top-100 recruit who chose to play for his father (a UNI assistant) over numerous high-major programs, Green has not disappointed thus far. He’s clearly the #1 scoring option for the Panthers, and also shoulders much of the ball-handling load. Green is the clear frontrunner for MVC Freshman of the Year and is well on his way to a great career in Cedar Falls.

Kendle Moore (Colorado State)

Stats: 12.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, .518/.269/.800 in 6 games

Originally signed by Niko Medved at Drake before following Medved to CSU, Moore has been an instant-impact freshman for the Rams. The diminutive combo guard exploded for 26 points on 9-11 shooting in his first career game, and also had 17 points, 4 assists, and 5 steals against Florida Gulf Coast last week. Once he becomes a consistent 3-point shooter (after starting the season 6-8, he is just 1-18), he’ll be unguardable.

Efe Odigie (UTEP)

Stats: 14.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 0.6 apg, .581/.000/.615 in 5 games

Rodney Terry had to virtually build a roster from scratch when he took over for Tim Floyd at UTEP in March. While the Miners struggle through a rebuilding year as they wait for several elite transfers to become eligible, Odigie has been a steadying force on the block. Odigie followed Terry from Fresno State to UTEP and has been a double-double machine in the early stages of his career.

 

 

Week 2 Recap + Thanksgiving Tourney Picks

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin break down all things week 2, including a brutal Gavitt Games for the Big East and big weekends for Iowa, UCF, and others. They also put in their predictions for a loaded week of games, including the Maui Invitational and the Battle 4 Atlantis.