(photo courtesy: Monmouth University Athletics)

Monmouth’s Strong Start Prompting MAAC At-Large Conversation

Monmouth’s meteoric rise in the season’s first month has prompted the possibly of the MAAC earning their first at-large bid since the 2012 season.

The Hawks, thanks to road wins and the best showing in the AdvoCare Invitational since 2006 by a MAAC team, have been skyrocketing in the latest RPI rankings. They currently rank 14th in the NCAA’s most recent RPI rankings, down from their previous high of 11th. Monmouth has already collected wins over two Pac-12 teams (UCLA and USC), an ACC team (Notre Dame), a Big East team (Georgetown) and on Sunday beat Big Ten opponent Rutgers.

MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor said the last time he saw a team make a strong early season run like this were the La Salle teams in the early 1990’s, when the conference saw the Explorers earn a four-seed in the 1990 NCAA tournament.

“It’s been a long time for sure,” Ensor said. “I think, in recent history, this is certainly a phenomenal slate of wins that King Rice has put together.”

“I give him a lot of credit, he recognized last year that he could have a very special team over this current season and he was very aggressive about wanting to be in the AdvoCare Invitational when the opening became available.”

The Hawks already have received a vote in the AP Top 25 poll after their AdvoCare Invitational run and picked up six votes in the poll Monday after knocking off Georgetown and Rutgers this past week. Should Monmouth take a hold of the conference during the months of January, February and March, they could become the third team in MAAC history to earn a favorable seed line.

Best MAAC NCAA tournament Seeds
2009 Siena 9
1993 Manhattan 11
1990 La Salle 4
1989 La Salle 8
1984 Iona 10

The last time the MAAC earned a single-digit seed was Siena’s 9-seed in 2009 when they needed 2 overtimes to beat Ohio State in Dayton. Yet they still had to win the MAAC tournament to earn their seed line, which is something Monmouth hopes to capture as well.

The conference’s last at-large bid went to Iona, who leveraged five wins against the RPI top 100 teams to get into the First Four to face BYU, where they squandered a 25-point lead. However the added benefit to the MAAC getting an at-large would be to increase their total share of NCAA tournament revenue over an extended period of time.

This season’s test for the conference to try to get an at-large bid will also have a complication the Gaels did not have. Iona played 18 conference games and the last at-large before that, Manhattan, only played 14 when they went 26-5 and earned a 13 seed in 1995. The conference’s expansion in 2013 and round-robin format will force the Hawks to have to run through a 20-game conference schedule, starting at a 1-1 record in January after their split of the Buffalo trip.

“I don’t know if it makes it more difficult,” Ensor said. “I think Iona proved [in 2012] that you have to present a pretty good resume to the committee, and certainly Monmouth needs to take care of business within the league, but you can position yourself with a few losses in the league and still present a pretty good resume to the committee. Particularly when you build this kind of non-conference record, but you do have to take care of business within the league.”

The Gaels lost only three games in the season they earned the at-large bid after falling to Fairfield in the MAAC tournament semifinals. Siena posted a 17-1 record during the 2009-10 season, but were hardly guaranteed an at-large berth and probably would not have earned one should they have lost in overtime of the championship game against Fairfield. The Hawks have already done something that the Saints team that beat Ohio State in 2009 didn’t, win a game in the Orlando event.

“There is no guarantee and 2012 looks really good now, but in early March 2012 lot of folks didn’t think Iona was getting in despite their wins,” Ensor said. “I think the at-large opportunity, to the extent it exists, is on the men’s side.”

Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.