MAAC Tournament Primer: Monmouth

Monmouth enters this weekend’s conference tournament not only the hottest team in the MAAC, but riding one of the longest winning streaks in the nation.

Justin Robinson is the odds-on favorite to repeat as MAAC Player of the Year.

Since dropping a January 2 contest at Saint Peter’s to fall to 2-2 in MAAC play, the Hawks have done nothing but win. Their 16-game winning streak to end the season is the second longest in the nation only to Vermont, who pushed their run to 19 in a row Wednesday night.

On a mission to avenge an at-large snub last season and capture the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006, Monmouth this year became the first MAAC team to win 18 league games. The Hawks finished the season with an 18-2 record and won their second consecutive regular season title with a four game cushion.

Player to watch: #12 Justin Robinson, Sr. G

The Hawks are the #1 overall seed in this weekend’s tournament and will take on the winner of Thursday’s matchup between #8 Quinnipiac and #9 Niagara Friday night at 7:00 p.m.

Justin Robinson leads Monmouth and the MAAC with a scoring average of 19.2 points per game. The reigning league Player of the Year – likely to repeat that honor Friday – also runs the Hawks’ offense with 4.8 assists per game. On Monday, the senior was made a unanimous selection to the all-MAAC First Team, making the club for the third year in a row.

“He’s always led by example, trying to win every sprint, being in the gym the most, pushing guys, but this year he became a much more vocal leader,” head coach King Rice said of Robinson on a league conference call Monday. “The guys got in line behind him and we had some other seniors, Josh James and Je’lon [Hornbeak] that helped with that, but Justin became a vocal leader this year. He was already a great player, but his leadership has been incredible.”

Should Robinson take home MAAC Player of the Year when it is handed out early Friday, he would become just the fourth player to win the award multiple times and the first since Manhattan’s Luis Flores, who took home the honor in 2003 and 2004.

King Rice has led his team to a 35-5 league record over the last two years.

Sophomore Micah Seaborn was also named to the all-MAAC First Team. Last season’s league Rookie of the Year averaged 13.5 ppg this year and appears poised to take over the backcourt reins after the Hawks’ slew of seniors graduate this spring.

“Micah’s put in a lot of work,” Rice said of Seaborn. “[He’s a] gym rat so he’s going to keep working. There’s a lot of good players in the league and hopefully Micah can continue to be on First Team.”

Senior Je’lon Hornbeak is the third Hawk to average double figures. The Texas native and former Oklahoma Sooner checks in at 11.9 ppg and this weekend will be returning to the site of his most prolific performance.

In last year’s MAAC Championship game, Hornbeak buried all seven of his attempts from the field, including a 5-for-5 performance from long distance. His 20 points – then a career-high – paced the Hawks, but they fell to Iona 79-76 and in the process came up short of their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

As the regular season has wound down, Hornbeak has been heating up. The senior has connected on 22 of 36 (61%) 3-pointers in his last six games and has posted double figures in nine straight contests. In five career games at the Times Union Center, Hornbeak has shot 13-for-19 (68%) from behind the arc.

Je’lon Hornbeak may be primed for another impressive showing in Albany.

Balanced on both sides of the court, Monmouth ranks second in the MAAC in both offensive and defensive efficiency during league play according to KenPom.com. The Hawks take care of the ball better than anyone in the league with a 16.5% offensive turnover percentage, and own the best effective field goal percentage defense (46.4%) in the MAAC.

A major key to Monmouth’s success this season has been the very thing that earned it national TV time last season: its bench. But instead of antics and poses on the sidelines, the Hawks’ bench has had a measurable impact on the court this year.

Rice routinely makes use of nearly his entire roster every night. A dozen Hawks have appeared in at least 26 of the team’s 31 games this season, and all twelve average at least 7.0 minutes per game. Although they don’t play as many minutes as the stars, they provide quality depth and grant Monmouth fans a glimpse of the future night in and night out.

“That’s what I’m trying to build; a program, not just a one year thing,” Rice said after a win at Fairfield February 21. “The part that’s exciting if you looked out there at the end, Sam [Ibiezugbe] is 6-foot-11, Mustapha [Traore] is 6-foot-9, and Pierre [Sarr] is 6-foot-8, and they don’t get to get in very much. We have a program now that’s going to make people proud.”

Monmouth swept both potential quarterfinal opponents in the regular season. The Hawks opened MAAC play with a 91-72 thrashing of Quinnipiac and beat the Bobcats again 95-76 January 27 in West Long Branch. Monmouth won at Niagara 90-83 on January 14, then dispatched the Purple Eagles 93-75 a month later.

“We’re one of the best teams,” Rice added after the win over Fairfield. “We’ve shown that, so if we can stay focused, who’s to say we can’t just keep winning them one at a time?”

Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.