Of all the anticipated major storylines as the 2015-16 college basketball season approached, it’s safe to say not a single one of them included a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference school from West Long Branch, N.J., that lost 15 games the year before.
It has been some time since a school as small as Monmouth so thoroughly captured the nation’s attention, but the Hawks were not just the story of the MAAC but one of the biggest anywhere. It was a Gonzaga-like rise for a program that finished fourth in its conference a year earlier, but was perhaps as talked about as almost any team not named Duke or Kentucky in 2015-16.
Monmouth took on a brutal non-conference schedule and had the audacity to not just play competitively against it but win more than its share of games. Led by pocket-sized guard Justin Robinson and more talented than most anyone not around the team expected, the Hawks ran around and shot over foes, defeating a who’s who of major college athletics names: UCLA, Notre Dame, USC, Georgetown.
Certainly part of the Hawks’ story was their bench, a social media generation godsend with its antics that were fun, if not always endearing to opponents. Add it all up, and Monmouth became such a big story nationally that the Big Ten Network moved a home game for one of its conference schools-Rutgers-into a national television slot, just so it could show the Hawks and their Bench Mob.
That’s right: Monmouth influencing the Big Ten and television.
Of course, the likes of the Big Ten got their revenge in March. After Monmouth lost a close game in the MAAC tourney final, a clueless NCAA Tournament Selection Committee practically turned itself inside out to find a way to keep the Hawks out of the Big Dance. They finally found what they thought to be a good reason, citing three sub-200 ranked non-conference losses, conveniently ignoring that all of those losses were away from home-where Monmouth played 24 of its 35 games and where BCS schools just about never venture to face low-rated teams, but when they do tend to lose at no less of a rate. The committee made a mockery of every claim it has ever made about the importance of non-conference scheduling and perhaps proved once and for all that in the “Power 5,” grab-every-penny era, it’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters most for at-large selection.
As colorful as Monmouth was, it was only the latest to add flavor to a conference that already had quite a bit of it, as its new archrival was more than willing to remind the Hawks of. You see, before there was Monmouth, there was Iona, running, passing and shooting with coach Tim Cluess running one of the highest-octane offenses in the country. Cluess also made no secret that he wasn’t a card-carrying member of the Monmouth bench fan club, and the two teams’ first meeting-a 110-102 shootout-resulted in a post-game skirmish with shoving, slapping, and even Hawks coach King Rice playing to the Iona crowd after.
The words, the post-game scrum and the entertainment value of the two teams guaranteed that their contests were the definition of must-see television, sparking the type of rivalry that will be talked about for years after. The two teams ended up playing three times in all, all three quality contests, and Iona won the final two, including a 79-76 win in the MAAC final to clinch the league’s NCAA automatic bid.
Add in a surge by conference stalwart Siena-led by the always chatty himself Jimmy Patsos-and the MAAC had no lack for personalities at the top. The conference consistently had points, quotes and fun to spare in 2015-16, far outweighing the league’s typical place in the national landscape, ranking in the 15-20 range among conferences (19th in conference RPI this year)
The 2016 MAAC tourney was once again back at the Times Union Center (nee Knickerbocker Arena) in Albany, traditionally a well-supported site for the event, if not always considered a fair one given the obvious advantage for nearby Siena. Still, the home advantage didn’t help the Saints this year-second-seeded Iona took care of the homestanding No. 3 seed 81-70 in the semifinals.
Coupled with top seed Monmouth’s 76-63 win over No. 5 Fairfield, the title game was the one most expected and wanted to see, and it delivered. Monmouth recovered from an early 8-point deficit to take a halftime lead, and the Hawks built their margin to seven before the Gaels rallied. The two teams were tied with two minutes to play, but A.J. English hit a jumper and Deyshonee Much hit a three-point play and Monmouth turned it over with two seconds left as Iona capped a late-season flourish with its league-best ninth MAAC tourney title.
Other than the barely there upset of Fairfield over No. 4 St. Peter’s 64-55 in the quarterfinals (the two teams tied for fourth in the final regular season standings), the first two rounds of the tourney went according to form. The most intriguing game involved the two old Buffalo-area rivals, as No. 7 Canisius needed three overtimes to eliminate 10th-seeded Niagara 102-97 in the longest game in MAAC tourney history and the longest contest in the two teams’ 180-game series history. Phil Valenti scored 33 points for the Golden Griffins, while Niagara’s Chris Barton played all 55 minutes. Canisius was knocked out one round later when Iona scored a 73-55 quarterfinal win.
Player of the Year: Justin Robinson, G, Jr., Monmouth
Defensive Player of the Year: Javion Ogunyemi, F, Jr., Siena
Rookie of the Year: Micah Seaborn, G, Fr., Monmouth
Sixth Man of the Year: Nico Clareth, G, Fr., Siena
Coach of the Year: King Rice, Monmouth
Brett Bisping, F, Jr., Siena
A.J. English, G, Sr., Iona
Marcus Gilbert, F, Sr., Fairfield
Shane Richards, G, Sr., Manhattan
Justin Robinson, G, Jr., Monmouth
- Monmouth won a school-record 28 games, won at UCLA and Georgetown, defeated Notre Dame and USC to finish third in the Old Spice Classic and won its first MAAC regular season title. The Hawks also received a No. 1 seed in the NIT in its first trip to that tournament, losing in the second round to eventual champion George Washington.
- Monmouth guard Justin Robinson was named an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American, the Hawks’ first since Blake Hamilton in 2005.
- Siena posted a pair of top-55 wins, defeating St. Bonaventure and Hofstra at home.
- Fairfield was one of the most improved teams in the country, improving from seven wins the year before to 19. Monmouth and Siena also both won 10 more games than they did in 2014-15.
- Siena played in the College Basketball Invitational, losing to eventual tourney runner-up Morehead State 84-80 in the first round. Fairfield also appeared in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, falling to New Hampshire 77-62.
What we expected, and it happened: Even faced with a rash of injuries early in the season, Iona was right at the top of the league again, and really hit its stride late to make its third trip to the NCAAs in five years.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Manhattan has become one of the flagship programs of the MAAC, so most figured Steve Masiello would find some way to keep his team near the top, but the young Jaspers had a down year and finished sixth in the league.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Monmouth was expected to challenge Iona for the top spot, but no one foresaw the Hawks’ arrival on the national scene. Also, Fairfield was one of the most improved teams in the country, rising from 7 wins to 19 and finishing solidly in the top half of the conference with Gilbert pacing an otherwise very young team that grew quickly.
Teams on the rise: Monmouth, Siena, Fairfield. Has to be the Hawks, right? King Rice has built a program with a national rep now, and just about everyone returns save for Deon Jones. On the other hand, the Saints return five-FIVE-players who averaged in double figures a year ago. Don’t forget Fairfield, either, which was dominated by freshmen and sophomores last year and isn’t far from making this a four-team horse race.
Team on the decline: Quinnipiac. At least that was the case a year ago, when even the Bobcats’ typically proficient rebounding couldn’t mask their bad marksmanship as the team ranked dead last in Division I in shooting percentage-by a solid margin.
2016-17 MAAC Outlook
Fans should be in for another good time next year in the MAAC. Monmouth brings back almost its entire team; the only real question is how the Hawks perform from the start with a target on their backs. Siena also is loaded 1-5, though the Saints could use a little more depth. And even though Iona loses English, points are rarely a problem for the Gaels, and Much, Schadrac Casimir and Fordham transfer Jon Severe should be more than pleased to take more shots.
Fairfield also should be safe to pencil in the first division as its young talent continues to grow, though Gilbert’s loss can’t be underestimated. After those four is where the questions begin. Can Manhattan or Quinnipiac find their way back near the top after off years? Can St. Peter’s use defense to remain pesky and finish higher than expected? How will Canisius do with a new coach after Jim Baron’s retirement? And where does Rider fit in?
If not for how badly Monmouth was hosed by the selection committee, we’d pose the question of if the MAAC could get two NCAA bids next year…or maybe even (gasp) three? As it is, the possibility for a number of postseason bids is there, as well as a chance for those teams to stick around for a while.