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.