Outlook: After winning the regular season title but falling short of the NCAA Tournament each of the last two seasons, the torch passes to Micah Seaborn and others to lead the Hawks forward after the graduation of Justin Robinson.
Last year: 27-7 (18-2 MAAC)
Who’s in: Ray Salnave (G); Melik Martin (F); Deion Hammond (G); Nick Rutherford (G); George Papas (G); Marcus McClary (G)
Who’s out: Justin Robinson (G); Je’lon Hornbeak (G); Chris Brady (F); Collin Stewart (G); Josh James (G)
Key Non-Conference Games: Bucknell (11/10); @Seton Hall (11/12); @Virginia (11/19); Albany (11/27); @UConn (12/2); Kentucky (12/9)
Last season, Monmouth became the first team in the MAAC to ever win 18 conference games en route to their second straight regular-season title. The Hawks won 20-plus games in back to back seasons for the first time in school history, and have posted a 55-15 (35-5 MAAC) record over the last two years. For that, head coach King Rice was rewarded with a new contract this offseason extending through the 2021-22 season.
However, for the second straight season the Hawks’ postseason hopes ended in disappointment. Snubbed from the 2016 NCAA Tournament after a 27-7 regular season, Monmouth fell to Siena in the MAAC tournament semifinals in 2017, relegating the Hawks to the NIT once more.
Looking back on their success, Monmouth Gone are all five starters from that semifinal loss – Justin Robinson, Je’lon Hornbeak, Chris Brady, Collin Stewart, and Josh James – perhaps the greatest class in school history, led by Robinson, the program’s all-time leading scorer. Now King Rice and company will try to accomplish what that lauded class could not: win a MAAC title and earn a spot in the Big Dance.
One of the Hawks’ most important pieces this season will be redshirt freshman Ray Salnave. The talented guard sat out last season behind a bevy of veteran talent, but will have an opportunity to shine this year. Salnave played high school ball at Benjamin N. Cardozo in Queens where he played in back-to-back PSAL championship games, winning the title as a sophomore.
Salnave could very well help fill the gap left by Robinson at point guard, but senior guard Austin Tilghman is sure to assist in that duty. Last season, the Delaware native averaged 7.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.4 assists and was named MAAC Sixth Man of the Year. Tilghman’s versatility and aptitude on the defensive end will allow King Rice to employ him in any role necessary, including at the point while Salnave adjusts to Division I basketball.
Micah Seaborn (13.2 ppg) is the Hawks’ chief returner this season, and is set up to take over as the team’s go-to scorer in his junior year. The Texas native ranked second behind Robinson in scoring last season, and both were named to the league’s First Team.
Despite averaging the same number of points in his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Seaborn was less efficient last season. His field goal percentage dropped from 42.4% in 2015-16 to 37.2% last year, and his 3-point percentage similarly fell from 38.6% to 33.0%. Monmouth’s success this season will hinge heavily upon Seaborn’s efficiency as a scorer, thus a return to his freshman numbers would be a welcome sight for all involved.
Redshirt sophomore Louie Pillari has gone from bench mob performer to on-court option in just one season, and the walk-on should have an opportunity to play significant minutes this year. Last season, Pillari notched just 3.1 points in 8.2 minutes per game but scored double figures twice, including a 16-point outburst against Niagara in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals.
Rice has also brought in a trio of fresh faces to support his returners in the backcourt: freshmen Deion Hammond, George Papas, and Marcus McClary.
Hammond averaged 16.8 ppg as a senior at Riverdale Baptist High School in Maryland last season, scoring double figures 30 times. Papas is a local Jersey City product with a knack for the outside shot. He averaged 15.0 ppg at Gould Academy last season, and prior to that averaged 13.0 ppg as a senior at Union Catholic High School. McClary is another New Jersey native out of Linden and averaged 10.0 points as a senior at The Patrick School last season.
Nick Rutherford transfers in from Florida Atlantic where he averaged 9.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 4.3 assists as a sophomore last season. He will sit out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer regulations, but projects to play a major role at point guard when eligible.
While the backcourt was a prominent reason for Monmouth’s success in recent years, it is the Hawks’ frontcourt which figures to be their greatest strength this season.
Led by fifth-year center Zac Tillman (6’10”), Monmouth boasts five forwards listed 6-foot-8 or above. The group should be an imposing force in a league gutted by the graduation of much of its frontcourt talent. Tillman sat out last season due to personal reasons, but should take on a leadership role amongst the forwards.
Big men returning from last year’s roster include juniors Pierre Sarr (6’8”) and Diego Quinn (6’9”), redshirt sophomore Mustapha Traore (6’8”), and true sophomore Sam Ibiezugbe (6’11”). While each has the potential to break out this season, none averaged more than 3.5 points or 2.8 rebounds a year ago.
Incoming freshman Melik Martin will try to work his way into the mix as well. The 6-foot-6 native of York, PA averaged 16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and shot 57% from the floor in his senior season at York Catholic last year.
Throughout Monmouth’s success the past two seasons, Rice stressed the importance of building a program, not just riding high on the strength of one class. 2017-18 will present the perfect opportunity for the Hawks’ coach to gauge the development of his program.
Although many of those who will be stepping to the forefront this season came off the bench last year, Rice moved their development along with ample playing time. Last year’s Hawks included 12 players who averaged at least 6.8 minutes per game. Of those 12, seven return to this year’s squad, and that experience should pay dividends this season.
Monmouth will once again take on a challenging non-conference schedule which includes the likes of Seton Hall, Virginia, UConn, and Kentucky. As part of the MAAC’s move to an 18-game schedule, the Hawks will neither host Quinnipiac nor travel to Marist.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.