WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. (AP) — Coach King Rice and four end-of-the bench Monmouth basketball players stood off to the side drinking water and slapping hands while the starters ran timed full-court sprints.
Again. And again. And again.
Rice dished out the penalty to his top players for losing two practice drills to five players anchored by their 50-year-old head coach. He was driving home the point of not letting a weaker opponent gain confidence. That’s happened a few times this season during a surprising 0-11 start.
“Any time you lose this many, everybody’s confidence is shaken,” Rice said. “You lose, lose, lose, and you keep losing. If we can get one, maybe we get on the road to others.”
Monmouth joins LaSalle, Coppin State and Alabama A&M as the final four winless teams of the 351 in NCAA Division I.
The Hawks are trying to win again after back-to-back Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles and earning NIT appearances during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. They lost junior Micah Seaborn when he entered the NBA Draft.
“Some people are looking at it like, ‘Monmouth is done. They’ll never win a game,'” redshirt junior forward Mustapha Traore said. “I don’t pay attention. I’m very confident right now. We haven’t started conference play, and we haven’t gone as hard as we possibly can in practice.”
Traore, Louie Pillari and Diago Quinn – all fourth-year players – were true freshman when Monmouth garnered national attention for its Bench Mob. The choreographed celebrations orchestrated by reserves came to symbolize the fun of college basketball at a mid-major level.
The hard realization is that first taste might be as good as it gets for the upperclassmen.
“It’s been tough so far, but it’s a learning experience,” Pillari said. “Sometimes you try to look back and see what they did differently than what we’ve done, just trying to apply those winning principles.”
Monmouth’s final two nonconference games are Thursday at home against Yale (which has wins against Miami and California) and Dec. 31 against Penn (which last beat defending national champion Villanova).
“Everything we do from here on is a lesson,” Traore said. “We just want to keep everything positive right now. Everybody wants to keep their head up going forward to the next game.”
Of the 11 losses, which included a visit to No. 19 Kentucky, the most haunting was a 75-73 defeat to Hofstra, which converted the go-ahead three-point play with 16 seconds to go.
“They’re all hard,” Pillari said. “With how well we played, you are supposed to win that one. I don’t want to say it hurts the most, but that’s the one it feels like we deserved.”
Monmouth’s long slog actually began in May, when Seaborn entered the NBA Draft. Seaborn went unselected and since has been waived from the developmental NBA G League. Hawks great Justin Robinson is playing overseas after a four-year career.
“One hundred percent it’s had a major impact on our team because we are missing an alpha dog guy,” Rice said. “We have Micah on this team, (we start) 5-5 (or) 4-6.”
It reminds Rice of something he once heard from Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“He said, ‘You never ever let your best player leave until you have another person who is a best player like him,'” Rice said. “Micah wanted to go. At that time, I understood.
“If I had to do it over again, maybe I’d talk to him a little differently. But kids get to decide what they are going to do. I did not think it would go like this.”
Rice’s adjustments include calling more plays instead of his usual unscripted motion offense.
“We do stuff that’s unexplainable sometimes,” Rice said. “I’m not on the kids. I’m the coach, so it’s my fault. We’re trying to win each drill right now so we can get to winning a game. Taking away some of the freedom (in order) to run a set every time has helped this group.”
The Hawks play two games in a 22-day stretch before opening conference play Jan. 3 at Iona. It affords a chance to hit the mental reset button.
“I always try to think of it like we are 0-0 every game,” Pillari said. “We know where we are at, so we know how much harder we have to go. It’s not even really a break. It’s getting everything right. We’re going to turn the corner soon.”
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