Monmouth continued its daunting non-conference schedule with a Saturday matinee against powerhouse Kentucky in Madison Square Garden. While the Wildcats’ length and athleticism was too much for the Hawks to handle, King Rice and his squad continue to learn from these experiences.
Kentucky jumped out to a 21-8 lead midway through the first half and never looked back. The Wildcats’ 52 first-half points were the most allowed by Monmouth this season. Kentucky eventually prevailed 93-76 behind career highs from Hamidou Diallo (23) and PJ Washington (20). Monmouth was led by freshman Deion Hammond who scored 14 of his 19 points during a second half in which the Hawks outscored Kentucky 45-39.
Here are three thoughts on Monmouth’s meeting with Kentucky:
1) The Benefits of a Tough Schedule.
Monmouth has made it a point to schedule tough in recent years. In just the last three seasons, the Hawks have stared down the likes of UCLA, Notre Dame, Georgetown, South Carolina, and Seton Hall. Monmouth has even earned victories in a number of those contests, but Saturday’s showdown with Kentucky may have been their toughest test yet.
The Hawks’ lone lead of the day came in the opening minutes as Micah Seaborn connected on a 3-pointer to put his team up 5-4, but from then on it was all Kentucky.
“It’s been incredible, people know who Monmouth is now,” Rice said of playing high-profile teams on a national stage. “When I got here, nobody knew who Monmouth was outside of New Jersey. Well now people know who we are….This has been a great deal for our school. We have a Monmouth reception right now, we had a dinner last night. We’ve got new alums, all kinds of stuff going on, so these games have been tremendous for us.”
2) Sharing the ball
20 assists was most this season. Previous high was 16 at Lehigh 11/14. 20 assists accomplished once each of the previous two seasons.
Although Monmouth struggled to score against the Wildcats’ length and athleticism, particularly in the first half, the Hawks did display some impressive ball movement that will serve them well going forward.
Monmouth accrued 20 assists on 26 made baskets for the afternoon. Ten different Hawks picked up an assist, with freshman Ray Salnave the high man at five. Salnave in particular has shown encouraging development stepping into a lead guard position as a redshirt freshman. The Elmont, NY native has committed just two turnovers in each of Monmouth’s most challenging games against Kentucky, Seton Hall, and Virginia.
“They continued to move the ball,” Rice said. “It was as impressive of ball movement, no kid tried to go one-on-one. When you play that way and you share the ball like that, then you have kids that are really good players that will get open shots. That’s the key to college basketball: all the kids want to get to the NBA game, but the college game is a beautiful game when you share the ball. We shared it more than we normally do today and got to 20 assists.”
Monmouth has reached 20 assists in a game once in each of its previous two seasons. The previous high for this season was 16 accomplished at Lehigh on November 14.
3) King and Cal
Saturday’s opposing coaches have developed a strong professional relationship through decades of involvement in college basketball. As a teen recruited to major programs, King Rice heard from many coaches, including Calipari in his time as an assistant at Pittsburgh. That contact decades ago continued to play a part in Rice’s development as a head coach in recent years.
“Cal recruited me hard,” Rice said. “I probably got about 8,000 letters from Cal that are still at my mother’s house when he was at Pittsburgh. He was really good at it. When I started coaching, I started going back and looking at some of those letters to have ideas of what to say to kids. When I got into coaching and through the years, he’s always been good to me.”
This past summer, Rice had the opportunity to coach alongside Calipari on the USA Basketball Men’s U19 World Cup Team in Colorado Springs.
“When I got to do it with Cal at the U-19 – I knew he was good, but he’s great at this. He just remembers I was a young guy that he recruited, and he treats me tremendously well and I’ve just got a lot of respect for him.”
“He and I have been friends for a long time,” Calipari added of Rice. “He’s somebody that I’ve always respected because not only is he a basketball guy, he is one of the great people in our profession. He’s good to kids, he’s good to coaches, and we’ve been friends. The thing with Kentucky, if we have an opportunity to help someone like that by playing a game, we do it. He’s one of those guys.”
Saturday’s meeting was the first between the two programs, but it won’t be the last. The two are scheduled to continue their series next year, in a matchup which will hopefully continue to advance Monmouth’s national profile.
“He did not have to play us,” Rice said of Calipari. “He did not have to do this. This helps us, our University, and everybody involved in our program more than it helps Cal. Not only did he do it this year, he’s doing it next year, so that should tell you we’re pretty tight.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.