People say that the only person that could stop Michael Jordan was Dean Smith. It’s less of a criticism on the revered coach and more of an important teaching point about how Smith put teamwork ahead of personal goals in building his legacy at North Carolina.That philosophy is exactly what second-year Monmouth head coach talks about when the idea that the Hawks’ lack of a go-to player is going to hold the them back.
“We’re a team type program,” Rice said. “College basketball is not the NBA. To have a go-to guy is not what we believe in. We think it’s a team thing.”
Rice thinks that he does have players on the roster that could score in bunches if necessary. Guys like Jesse Steele, who led the team with 12.6 points per game in 2011-12, could theoretically score more points if called upon. In fact, the 5’8″ guard scored 20 or more points four times last season, including 25 against Vanderbilt. The Hawks went just 2-2 in those games and one win was a 69-67 squeaker over Navy.
“Jesse has proven he can go out and get 25 points, but other guys have gone out and done that also,” Rice added.
One of the players Rice thinks can make a big difference on offense is Khalil Brown. The 6’9″ forward sat out last season, but has the skills to dominate inside and outside the paint in the NEC. Brown has a diverse game that should allow him to step out and bother opponents. His versatility is the type of game that causes match up nightmares.
Marcus Ware is another player that will get an opportunity to step up for Monmouth this season. A 2011 NEC All-Rookie Team selection, Ware injured his knee before last season and missed the first eight games while recovering. Even when he came back, it wasn’t at full speed, but he averaged 6.4 points in 19.7 minutes per game. After a strong summer, Rice thinks Ware is ready to contribute in a big way.
“Marcus Ware is making big, big strides to be the player the year before I got here,” Rice said.
A year of experience should also help the team improve. While Monmouth has a difficult non-conference schedule again this season, it’s not quite last season’s schedule, which included games at Villanova, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt, Rutgers and North Carolina. In retrospect, Rice thinks he might’ve over-scheduled a bit during his first season.
“It was probably a little bit ambitious on my part being that it was the first time I was coaching these young men,” Rice said. “I give these guys a lot of credit.”
Instead, Monmouth will play at Notre Dame, Syracuse and Maryland and also host Villanova. Rice sounds excited to welcome a Big East school to an NEC arena.
“I’m very excited for it,” Rice said. “Any time you can get a high-major program to come to your building that’s huge for a school like us. Most of the time you have to go to the bigger school’s arena. Jay Wright had a deal to come down to Monmouth before I became the coach. I respect him a whole bunch that he would take his team to a smaller school and play us. We want to continue playing home-and-home.”
The series, has some benefits for the Wildcats as well. It opens more of New Jersey to recruiting and the state is a logical hot bed of talent for the school. Plus, the last time Villanova came to West Long Branch it ran away with a 76-36 victory in 2010.
This season the game should at least be a little more competitive. Monmouth’s had a season to grow into Rice’s team system. The expectations have ratcheted up, and while some people are skeptical, Rice expects his team to compete with the best in the NEC next season.
“Last season we wanted to make the tournament,” Rice said. “This year we feel like we’ve moved up and our kids have gotten better and we want to win the conference tournament.”
Even if the Hawks don’t win the regular season title, earning a home game in the NEC tournament quarterfinals seems like a solid step forward. If Monmouth moves into the elite in the NEC it’ll be the team concept on offense that takes the Hawks to the next level.
“We’re definitely a team approach,” Rice said. “This is college basketball. It should be the school in front of the player and we’re going to keep it that way.”