Monmouth 79, Iona 73: Don’t Forget About The Regular Season

If you’re reading this, it’s extremely likely you are a member of the choir and have been singing with us for a few years (and we thank you), but it feels like this is a good time to appreciate what Monmouth has accomplished this season. The Hawks finished the 2016-17 regular season at 26-5, winning the last 16 of them, and capturing their second straight MAAC title, this one by four games over their nearest competitor, Saint Peter’s.

They finished six games ahead of third place Iona, who just happened to be their opponents Sunday in the season finale. The Hawks led for most of the second half and held on for a 79-73 win at the Hynes Center, the second straight year they’ve won there. While Manhattan recently won back-to-back MAAC Tournament titles, it was Iona who had won three of the last four conference regular season titles before Monmouth (can you name the other? Niagara).

Monmouth’s win Sunday marked the first time since Tim Cluess arrived in New Rochelle that Iona has been swept by a MAAC opponent in the regular season, and to beat them by six games in a 20-game schedule? That just doesn’t happen.

On top of that, think back just three years when Monmouth joined the MAAC. The Hawks looked overmatched (finishing 5-15, 11-21 overall) and destined to reside at the bottom of the league for a while after making the jump from the NEC.

“Tim (Cluess) is as good an X and O coach as there is in our league,” Monmouth coach King Rice said. “I’ve learned from him. We play faster because how his teams beat up us when we first started playing against him, so I want to give them all the respect in the world. We don’t win this game maybe last year. Two or three years ago, they were beating the skin off of us. I remember playing them, and their kids were always respectful, but we weren’t up to their level.”

But here we are, and no matter what happens from here forward, King Rice and his players deserve to be recognized for what they’ve done the last couple of seasons, 54-13 overall and now 35-5 in the MAAC regular season.

“We’re an older group now,” Rice said. “Senior-laden teams usually play well and we have a lot of seniors, a lot of older guys, we are a very confident group. We wanted to win the regular season. After losing those first two, everybody had a lot of things to say, well we got to 18 wins (in the MAAC). And we’re extremely excited about that. Now a new season starts. You have to ramp up a little more.”

Alas, in the cruel, cruel world that is mid-major college basketball, Monmouth will likely not be remembered by the masses for what they’ve done before March, a lesson it learned last season when it lost to, yes, Iona in the MAAC final and ended up in the NIT. They will face three games in four nights in Albany next week, and if they lose any, the Hawks will likely suffer the same fate.

Sure, they’ll be favored in all, and great players should play that way in big moments, but things happen in basketball games: people get hot, people get cold, balls bounce strangely. And so if we give Monmouth an 80% chance to win each game next weekend, by pure mathematics, they only win the MAAC title only about half the time (51.2%).

If it so happens that the roulette wheel of March doesn’t spin their way, it shouldn’t erase what came before it. Even if that’s the way college basketball works.

Game on from New Rochelle in the regular season finale. #TMMLegacy

A post shared by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

What else did we learn Sunday in New Rochelle?:

  1. Pick your poison

Despite what you just read, Monmouth appears to have everything you’d want in a favorite going to Albany. They have a plethora of options, led by Justin Robinson (16 pts., 5 assists), but also including Je’lon Hornbeak (25 pts., 5-7 three-point shooting). Sunday, they got huge contributions out of Josh James, who scored five straight huge points after Iona had come back to tie the game at 61-61 with 6 minutes left, and Austin Tilghman, who came off the bench to tally 10 points and 9 rebounds in 24 minutes. Micah Seaborn has been battling injuries, but is just about back to 100 percent, while Chris Brady is as much of an interior force as you’ll find in the MAAC.

“That’s one of the reasons why I chose to come to Monmouth with Coach Rice because I wanted to bring winning back to our program,” James said. “It’s been a fun ride. We struggled at first, but now we’re here.”

Monmouth is also consistent on both ends of the floor (2nd in offensive and defensive efficiency in the MAAC), but on top of everything else, has the dreaded intangibles going for it as well. They are a veteran team with experience at almost every position, and came so close last season that you have to think this is their time.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Robinson said. “We got a tough win, but nobody played the way that they’re capable of for the entire game. We had defensive lapses, offensive lapses, little breakdowns here and there, and in order for us to win these next games, we have to keep getting better.”

2) But Iona still dangerous

Even at just 12-8 in the MAAC, Iona certainly has the weapons to beat Monmouth (or anyone), starting with Jordan Washington, whom Rice said “almost fouled out our whole team” Sunday (16 pts., 8 rebs., 22 min.). You want ridiculous stats? Iona finished the 2016-17 MAAC season at 1.117 ppp, the seventh straight campaign (all under Cluess) that the Gaels led the conference in offensive efficiency.

Last season, 11-29 from three was good enough to upset Monmouth. It might take a little better than that if they meet a week from Monday (and Saint Peter’s among others may have a big say in whether they get that far), but Sam Cassell Jr., E.J. Crawford, Jon Severe, Rickey McGill, Schadrac Casimir, and Jan Svandrlik can all score and all shoot three-pointers. And if they start lighting it up? They’re certainly capable.

It was Senior Day, which meant the last home game for Severe, Cassell, Taylor Bessick, and Washington. Iona often gets a reputation for taking players other programs have given up on and Washington talked afterward about getting another opportunity after originally committing to Arizona State.

“I’m just happy that Coach Cluess gave me another chance,” Washington said. “Obviously, you saw I got in trouble when I committed to Arizona State. If I didn’t have another chance, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Said Cluess: “I wholehearted believe in giving guys second chances, and I think some of the people who need second chances are overlooked in life, not just on the basketball court. Those are the believe who need someone to believe in them and mentor them more than the person who is doing everything right.”

3) Coin flips

Marist and Manhattan finished tied for 10th in the MAAC at 5-15, but not only did they split in the regular season, they beat almost exactly the same teams (Niagara twice, Quinnipiac). The only difference was the Jaspers beating Rider and the Red Foxes Canisius, but Rider and Canisius both finished at 10-10.

So it came down to a coin flip for seeding. Alas, who to flip the coin? It turned out that job fell to MAAC Associate Commissioner Jordan Confessore, who happened to be in New Rochelle for the Monmouth-Iona contest. With teams clammoring for an answer to fill out the bracket, a coin was dug up (Tim Cluess offered, but Confessore used her own).

Manhattan was designated heads and Marist tails, and the flip on the Hynes Center floor came up tails, putting Marist at No. 10 (and against No. 7 Canisius) and Manhattan No. 11 (against No. 6 Rider). And so ended MAAC tiebreaker-gate 2017. To the tournament we go, shall we?