Snubbed last season, Monmouth now most dangerous mid-major in college hoops

NEW ROCHELLE, New York -- The biggest mid-major story in college basketball last season was Monmouth. You remember Monmouth. The fun-loving, attention-seeking, genuinely hilarious bench mob drew national headlines -- but the Hawks also had those huge wins.

This small school out of West Long Branch, New Jersey (undergrad enrollment there is fewer than 5,000) took out UCLA, USC, Notre Dame and Georgetown a season ago. The Hawks were a good story, but those four wins were seesawed by three losses to sub-200 teams. 

Last year, on Selection Sunday, the team gathered in the locker room to watch the bracket reveal. Pint-sized star point guard Justin Robinson, one of the most interesting, watchable players in college basketball, left within 10 minutes of the show starting. 

“When I saw we wasn’t one of the first four in, I was like, whatever,” Robinson told CBS Sports on Sunday. “I wasn’t expecting to get in. I didn’t want to get my hopes up with all the at-large talk and then get shot down in the end.”

Robinson bounced for the team gym, where he practiced alone for about 30 minutes, just him and the shooting gun feeding him balls. The rest of the team waited out the full field’s unveiling, never hearing their name called by Greg Gumbel. Monmouth went on to the NIT and lost in the second round. Prior to that, the 2015-16 Hawks had five wins over teams from power conferences; it might be the most ever in one season by a mid-major team to not get into the NCAA Tournament

But in 2017, Monmouth (26-5) is even better. This story has a stronger second act. 

The Hawks closed out their regular season Sunday with a 79-73 road win against their biggest MAAC foil, Iona. Monmouth enters postseason play on a 16-game winning streak. Only Vermont (17) has won more in a row. A year older, much stronger and with more balance, Monmouth is three wins away from an automatic bid. The Hawks haven’t hauled in headlines or huge wins this season, but they lead the short list of the most dangerous Cinderella candidates. 

Monmouth is led by Justin Robinson, but the Hawks are older and have great balance. Getty Images

Last year’s loss in the MAAC title game -- to Iona, of course -- wasn’t due to nerves or to pressure.

“We were ready, we just got beat by an Iona team that was better,” Robinson said. “They just got us. They were a good team. It happens.”

Sometimes it really is as simple as that. 

Iona’s coach, Tim Cluess, is a terrific tactician. King Rice, the coach at Monmouth, knows this and respects this and damn if it doesn’t drive him a bit crazy. Sunday’s road win over the Gaels was the necessary confidence-booster for King’s club. For Monmouth to sweep Iona this season, to know it has the pieces and poise to beat such a team, it’s a vital mental edge -- because these two could well to face each other again next Monday in the league championship game.

“We don’t win this, maybe last year,” Rice said of Sunday’s push-and-pull victory. “Two, three years ago, they were beating the skin off us. I remember playing them, and their kids were always respectful, but we weren’t up to their level. What Tim does, he’s a guy that picks on what you do. Tim will get baskets on you just watching what your team does and then figuring out good things to combat it. He finds something that they get on us that nobody else gets.”

Monmouth ranks 79th at KenPom and 86th at Sagarin, respectable numbers for a team from the MAAC. Without big-time wins against major-conference competition (yeah, surprise, surprise: nobody wanted to schedule Monmouth this season), an at-large inclusion is not going to happen. But the Hawks are a better team vs. last year’s squad. The resume isn’t as strong as last year, but Robinson is not needed to be the do-it-all player some think he is, and from this the Hawks have become a premier mid-major troop. 

“It’s never been like that,” he said. “I did a lot of that last year, but it’s never been like, ‘Oh, Justin’s gotta will us to a win.’”

Robinson leads the team in scoring (19.7 ppg), but senior Je’lon Hornbeak and sophomore Micah Seaborn contribute more than 25 points per game. This team has great balance. Its weakness is on the boards, but Monmouth’s points-per-possession offense is improved from last year. For a team that likes to run, that’s a really good sign. It’s also among the most experienced teams in the country. 

That’s led in good part to this winning streak. How else has Monmouth managed to pull together the longest win streak in program history? 

“Not thinking about it,” Robinson said. “We don’t go in thinking, We’ve gotta make this one 17 or, We’ve gotta make this 12 in a row. We go in 0-0 and want to start our season with a win.”

The Hawks have options. Watching Robinson is such a treat, because he’s all of 5-foot-8, yet no one denies his will. Hornbeak’s the player who will dictate if Monmouth can pull off an upset, though. He could start on a lot of power-conference teams now. And Seaborn is set up to be an all-league guy in the coming years. Most convincingly, Rice’s team has won by margins big and small at home and away. For a team that’s set on making you run, they’re still able to adapt.

“That’s what makes our team so dangerous,” Robinson said. “We have a lot of options.” 

Earlier this season Monmouth lost in overtime at South Carolina, was beaten at Syracuse and got handled by North Carolina. But the irony to this story might wind up coming together as such: This year’s Monmouth team fails to knock off power-conference schools in the regular season, only to get the biggest win in program history in the NCAAs. If it can do that, it would be a fitting conclusion to a story that began in November of 2015, when Monmouth walked out of Pauley Pavilion with a win over UCLA to start that season. 

The Hawks should have been in last year’s tournament. They remember that. This whole season is a revenge tour. Sixteen straight and counting. And now, with three more wins, this group could become one of the better redemption stories of this year’s NCAA Tournament. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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