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Crawl Before You Walk, Walk Before You Run

Regardless of what the final score might turn out to be, a minor milestone was sure to be achieved in the King Rice Era at Monmouth University Saturday night: Rice’s Hawks would finally host their first home game of the 2011-12 campaign.

The sight of the Multipurpose Activity Center had to be welcome for a Monmouth squad which had played its first nine games on the road to largely unimpressive results: The Hawks dropped their first eight games of the season by an average margin of more than 27 points before Rice was able to notch the first significant milestone of the his tenure, career win #1, when MU escaped its meeting with Navy with a 69-67 win. The win surely thrilled Monmouth President Paul G. Gaffney II, a retired Navy Vice Admiral, who made the trip to Annapolis to witness his new coach’s first win.

But if Gaffney was thrilled, Rice was overwhelmed. Reputed as a dynamic recruiter, most recently with Vanderbilt, the former Tar Heel point guard had routinely been passed over for head coaching positions due at least in part to his past issues with alcohol. Indeed, despite 15 years of sobriety — a milestone more important than any other that will be touched upon within this piece — if one was to Google Rice’s name just a few months ago, the results he or she would find on page one, dated as they were, were damning. Try it today, though, and those damning results have mostly been replaced by references to Monmouth basketball and articles detailing Rice’s redemption. It’s understandable, then, that Monmouth’s coach was overcome with emotion as he praised his team’s effort and thanked the MU administration for the opportunity they’d given him when interviewed in the aftermath of win #1.

It was a uplifting moment for a team in desperate need of one. The prior high point of the nine-game road stint (which Rice has since apologized for, calling the scheduling the work of “a crazy young coach”) was when a depleted Hawks team outscored Vanderbilt in the second half of a blowout loss in Rice’s return to Memorial Hall. Unfortunately, any momentum the team may have gained from the last 20 minutes of that game was dashed when they traveled to Loretto, Pennsylvania and fell to the previously winless St. Francis (PA) Red Flash by the same margin as they had to the then-18th-ranked Commodores.

It was my hope that the Hawks would make better use of their latest wave of momentum as I prepared to have my first in-person look at the 2011-12 team when they hosted the Fordham Rams. They did not disappoint me or the other 2,000 or so fans who half-packed the MAC for their first look at a King Rice-led Monmouth team on its home floor.

Not long after I found my seat in the MAC’s upper level (which, at two rows deep in a building of its size, felt suspiciously like a lower level seat — especially at the point in the game when we could hear 7’1 English center Phil Wait, drawn out of the paint, talking trash to his man on the perimeter), Monmouth exploded out of the gate with a 12-0 run in the first four minutes, setting a new mark for the team’s largest lead of the season in the process. That mark would be surpassed several times throughout the game, reaching a high of 23 points in the second half. The Hawks also went into the locker room with a lead for the first time all year.

That Monmouth was able to achieve these things was encouraging, but it was additionally encouraging because it was the first time all year that it looked like they had truly adjusted to the new style of play Rice has installed. For decades prior, Monmouth was known for its Princeton-style offense and matchup zone defense. When Rice came aboard, he promised to implement an aggressive man-to-man defense to go along with an up-tempo offense. That wasn’t going to be an easy task with little roster turnover from last year to this year, and the growing pains felt from the shift were frequently evident during the first eight games of the season. Not all of the hiccups were gone on Saturday night, but there were far fewer breakdowns defensively (including an absence of aggravatingly ironic backdoor layups, which had quickly gone from a staple of the team’s offense to an Achilles heel for its defense) and the aggressive offensive approach paid regular dividends in the form of transition layups that kept the Rams from ever creeping back into the game. It also forced the poor guy a row in front of me who was frantically scoring the game by hand to be ready at any time to chart another bucket or shot attempt.

With the possible exception of our scorekeeper friend and some stray Fordham fans who made the trip — there couldn’t have been many, since every basket Fordham made seemed to be met with dead silence — the first home game of the King Rice era of Monmouth basketball was a big hit, earning a standing ovation as the final seconds ticked away, the final buzzer sounded, and Rice had another milestone, small as it may one day seem, to check off in his head coaching career.

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