Monmouth has gotten good at celebrating.
Sunday, the Hawks clinched their first outright MAAC regular season title ever with a win over Niagara. Somehow, head coach King Rice ended up with a microphone. He tells his team to salute the crowd, and behind him, star point guard Justin Robinson busts out a salute-themed dance move.
"THEY TOLD ME I WASN'T SUPPOSED TO THANK ANYBODY," Rice yells, before going on to thank the school's president, athletic director and others. It's the night of the Oscars, and he's giving his own acceptance speech, but the band is not gonna play him off.
"We want to enjoy today," Rice says in his press conference. "We've earned the right to enjoy today."
This year, the least important players on Monmouth's team have made the biggest headlines. The bench's celebrations of on-court moments have blown up. The benchwarmers have gone on SportsCenter, they've picked up thousands of Twitter followers.
Lost in the viral hype over the school's dancing bench has been the fact that there's been a whole lot to celebrate.
Monmouth had previously never won more than 21 games in a season. This year, they won 25. They hadn't won a conference championship since 2005.
Before this season, Monmouth's last win against a major conference team was in 2002 when they beat Vanderbilt, and since then, the Hawks had lost 34 consecutive games against teams from power leagues. This year, they beat UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, Georgetown and -- does Rutgers still count as a major conference team? Really? -- and Rutgers. To be fair, they only beat USC one of the two times they played them, but they played five big schools and beat all five.
But there's still one important celebration left. They still need to ensure they get their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2006.
The MAAC is generally a one-bid league -- it has only received multiple bids twice, in 1995 and 2012 -- so typically you have to win the league's conference tourney to get an NCAA bid. But MAAC teams also don't typically beat all five major conference opponents they face. The NCAA Tournament is famous for having various Davids to slay various Goliaths, and Monmouth has already passed its slingshot certification testing.
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This isn't the way things usually are at Monmouth, a school of about 4,000 a few miles from New Jersey's shoreline.
When Rice took over in 2011, it had been five years since the Hawks had a winning season. And then the school upped the difficulty level by transferring from the Northeast Conference to the MAAC. (For those of you who aren't mid-major nerds, the MAAC is a few rungs higher.)
"We started at the bottom of the league," junior guard Justin Robinson said of his first year. "We were the young guys getting bullied every game, getting blown out. Down the stretch we were getting torched."
They weren't just struggling in the MAAC, they were struggling in the MAC, the building they play in. ("MAAC" = Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, "MAC" = Multipurpose Activity Center. Yes, if you were discussing the team's conference home record, you could say "the team went 9-1 in the MAAC in the MAC.")
"The first day, I think we were getting about 1200 people." Rice says. "Then with stellar coaching, we got up to about 1,100 people."
Now, the MAC is packed. Four times this year, the listed attendance exceeded the building's 4,100 capacity. Yes, the school sells shirts commemorating the bench's best celebrations. (They're readily available online.)
They have fun on the court, too. They average 71.5 possessions per game, the 15th-fastest tempo in college basketball. They don't mess around on offense. The team has their eyes on the hoop, and they may or may not know how to use the brake pedal. They're either going to get to the rim, get fouled, or get one of their shooters a three.
It's a bit of a circus, and the ringleader is Robinson, a 5'8 point guard who plays like you just told him 5'8 guys aren't supposed to play basketball. He's one of just 32 players in college basketball averaging 20 points per game and he leads Monmouth in every category except for rebounds and blocks. (He's third in rebounds.) He shoots 41.5 percent from deep, he's got a legit floater, and he took 191 free throws this year. He's not afraid to get slammed around by the huge guys in the middle, and he's happy to make them pay at the line.
Robinson says the main difference between then and now is this team operates like, well, a team.
"This year we've got a group that wants to be together all the time," Robinson said. "Off the court we don't travel alone. There's at least three or four of us in a group together. There were times my freshman and sophomore year that I would come in here late at night, early in the morning, and I'd be the only person in the gym. Now I can't get my own basket."
The togetherness is palpable. It's not just the viral walk-ons at the end of the bench. This whole team seems like they're enjoying themselves non-stop. Peek over at the team when the stadium MC is urging you to watch two 10-year-olds having a dance-off at center court. They're dancing over on the bench, too.
Here, look. Isn't this the most fun press conference you've seen this year?
(Sadly, Monmouth's coach does not appear interested in continuing his grain dynasty: His son is not named "Prince Rice.")
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All those major conference wins have the Hawks on the right side of the bubble in most Bracketology projections. After all, a power league team that won 83 percent of its games against power league opponents would be a lock for the tournament. Monmouth had less opportunities, but that's what they did.
But they've also dropped some games to lower-tier squads like Army, Canisius and Manhattan. The Hawks still need to win the MAAC tournament to make certain that they'll dancing. They'll play their first game against Rider on Friday night in Albany, and if they lose that or the semifinal, things could be dicey.
So, they still have work left to do. But they've gotten good at celebrating, and it'd be a shame to see all that talent go to waste.