Monmouth ready to avenge last year’s NCAA tournament snub

. . . They’re baaack! The Monmouth bench may no longer be the operation that took the college hoops world by storm a season ago, but this year’s Hawks have had the best start in program history at 23–5 with only three regular-season games to go.

Many were disappointed last March when Monmouth, which made waves with a strong nonconference effort but fell short in the MAAC title game, was sent to the NIT instead of the Big Dance. This year’s team has a great chance to make that snub a thing of the past, having already locked up the No. 1 seed in the MAAC tournament for the second straight year.

The Hawks haven’t lost since Jan. 2, having recovered from three straight losses earlier in the season by pulling off a 13-game win streak. They’ve already avenged both of their two conference losses—to Saint Peters and Rider—and will have the chance to complete a regular-season sweep of Iona—the team that derailed their NCAA dreams in the 2016 MAAC final—on Feb. 26.

This year’s edition of Monmouth brought back 81.9% of minutes continuity from last season, a mark only bested by three other teams in the country per kenpom.com—Wisconsin, Saint Mary’s and North Dakota. The Hawks returned four of their top five scorers, including 2015–16 MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, now a senior. The 5' 8″ point guard is leading the conference in scoring at 19.9 points per game, while adding 3.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals. His 42.2% field-goal percentage is down a tad from last year, but he’s having the best season of his career from behind the arc at 41.7% on 6.9 attempts per game. His assist rate is also up, from 23.1% as a junior to 30.1% this year.

Behind Robinson in scoring is sophomore guard Micah Seaborn, the only non-senior starter on this veteran Hawks squad, and guard Je'lon Hornbeak; the pair combine for more than 25 points per game. Monmouth’s top big man is center Chris Brady, who averages 9.1 points and 6.8 boards while shooting 57.2% from the floor. Defensively, the 6' 10″ Brady chips in 1.8 blocks per game, with a 9.5% block rate that ranks 30th in D-I.

As a team, Monmouth gets nearly 55% of its points from either the three-point line or the free-throw line, and shoots fairly well from both places. Its game is not to beat you from inside the arc, but defensively it’s holding opponents to just a 45.1% two-point field-goal percentage. In many ways, this Hawks team is quite similar to last year’s, a fact that’s not surprising given the continuity of the roster. But the 2016–17 group is more efficient offensively and better on the offensive boards, with the added bonus of now being one of the most experienced teams in the country. The Hawks are No. 86 on kenpom.com and No. 47 in the RPI, both of which are ahead of where they finished last season.

At its best, Monmouth is the team that punished Siena, a top-four squad in the MAAC, to the tune of 1.36 points per possession while shooting 54.2% (13 of 24) from three in a recent 102–82 win. At its worst, it’s the team that struggled to escape with a road win at lowly Manhattan earlier this month, overcoming poor shooting and just 0.81 points per possession to eek out a win behind its defense.

Which Hawks team will show up in the MAAC tournament? Money should be on the former, as its 15–2 conference mark is no fluke. Robinson and co. surely still feel the pain of last season’s MAAC title game loss and subsequent NCAA exclusion, and the knowledge this time there’s no backup potential for an at-large bid puts extra pressure on the conference tournament. One of the sport’s best feel-good stories never did get to be part of the Madness last season, but they may want to invest in some dancing shoes next month.

Game of the Week: BYU at No. 1 Gonzaga, Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2

One of the biggest questions of the college basketball season will be answered on Saturday night when top-ranked Gonzaga likely will be looking to close out an undefeated regular season when it hosts the Cougars. The “likely” is necessary in technicality only, as the Zags falling to their Thursday opponent, San Diego, would be the upset of the season if it happened. BYU is a much better opponent in comparison, but like so many other teams, the Cougars simply aren’t on the Bulldogs’ level—especially on the road in Spokane. Kenpom.com gives Gonzaga a 99% chance of winning its regular-season finale, and even if, as expected, it doesn’t turn out to be a barnburner, it will be worth it to tune in and see the Zags go for history.

Player to Watch: Florida Gulf Coast junior guard Brandon Goodwin

A transfer has done wonders for Goodwin, who joined the Eagles after two seasons with UCF and sat out last season per NCAA rules. In that time, the 6' 2″ guard improved his shooting across the board, turning both a poor three-point percentage (26.2%) and below-average free-throw percentage (60.7%) in 2014–15 into strengths: This year, he’s hitting 38.7% of his threes and knocking down 79.6% of his free throws. Goodwin has also come into his own as a scorer, leading 22–7 FGCU with 18.0 points per game (tied for fifth in the conference) while adding 4.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He’s rounding into top form at just the right time as well, averaging 24.3 points and 7.3 boards in the Eagles’ last six games.

Currently in first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference, Florida Gulf Coast is hoping Goodwin can lead it to its second straight NCAA tournament and third in five years. Last season, the Eagles rallied as a No. 4 seed to take the A-Sun tourney crown, but this year they won’t have quite as tough a path. A win over 3–10 Stetson is all that stands between them and the regular-season title (which they’ve already clinched at least a share of) and Atlantic Sun tournament No. 1 seed.

Stat of the Week: 51

Mike Daum’s name has been featured in this column a lot lately, but his performance in South Dakota State’s win over Fort Wayne on Saturday deserves special recognition. He scored 51 points—in 36 minutes of playing time—the highest single-game total by any Division I player this season. Daum shot 14 of 29 from the field, including going 7 of 18 from three and 16 of 17 from the free-throw line. Oh, and he added 15 rebounds. Not too shabby for a day’s work.

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