Rice returns to North Carolina as Monmouth's coach (Dec 28, 2016)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- King Rice is bringing a better Monmouth team to the Smith Center this time.
The former North Carolina point guard returns to his alma mater as coach of the opponent when Monmouth meets the ninth-ranked Tar Heels on Wednesday night.
Monmouth (10-2) is off to the best 12-game start in program history and has won nine games in a row for the first time.
North Carolina (11-2) might be a refreshed group after a week off.
"I think this break gives us time to get some rest," guard Joel Berry said. "It gives us time to rest and get ready for the ACC."
After this game, the teams delve into play in their respective conferences.
North Carolina players have been encouraged by their play. Even the 103-100 loss to Kentucky came with positive elements and it was followed by a thrashing of Northern Iowa last week.
"What better time to play great (than) right now," forward Kennedy Meeks said.
Meeks is evolving into a more complete player for the Tar Heels, and that's a sign of the team's progress. He is shooting 53.6 percent from the field and averaging 9.0 rebounds per game.
"I think now he's helping us on the defensive end and scoring in the low post," coach Roy Williams said.
Meeks, a senior, is within nine rebounds of becoming the 20th Tar Heel to reach the 800-rebound career total.
Rice, who played for the Tar Heels from 1987 to 1991, was recruited by Williams, then became a North Carolina assistant coach under Dean Smith.
Rice was a first-year Monmouth coach for the only other meeting between the teams. North Carolina won that Jan. 1, 2012, game by 102-65.
Monmouth senior guard Je'lon Hornbeak has received the past two Player of the Week distinctions in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Last week, he poured in a career-high 25 points and notched his first double-double in a victory against Ivy League favorite Princeton. The previous week, he bagged six three-pointers in a win at Memphis.
"It has been a year of getting more comfortable with this team, and getting more relaxed with these guys and now it's clicking," said Hornbeck, who transferred from Oklahoma following the 2013-14 season.
The Hawks have tinkered with their lineup, with Josh James rejoining the starting five for the Princeton game after two games coming off the bench. He switched with Pierre Sarr, who went back to a reserve role.
The 96-90 home victory against Princeton was played at Rice's preferred level.
"That was as good of a college basketball game that I've been in in a long time," he said. "The back and forth was incredible."
The Hawks have some scoring prowess, but Rice said that's often predicated on what happens at the other end of the court.
"Sooner or later the ball is going to go in and we're going to (gain momentum) by getting stops," Rice said.
Monmouth's losses this season came more than a month ago in consecutive road games against South Carolina (in overtime) and Syracuse.