The most exciting team in college basketball this season isn’t a school that’s used to being high in the rankings and competing for National Championships- in fact, they’ve never been nationally ranked, and have never been seeded higher than #13 or advanced past the first round of March Madness. However, the Monmouth Hawks have managed to draw attention from across the nation through a combination of stunning upsets and bench celebrations that just might carry the unlikely crowd pleasers to postseason play.
At first glance, Monmouth’s 8-3 record looks good, but not earth-shattering by any means. However, the Hawks have won five games against major conference opponents, beating UCLA, Notre Dame, USC, Georgetown, and Rutgers, with all but Rutgers being potential March Madness teams. But the tough competition doesn’t end there. Even their losses contain a road meeting with USC and a game against Dayton, a great Atlantic 10 squad that sits just outside the top 25.
Monmouth has built a resume that few teams in college basketball can equal, and it’s paid off numbers-wise as well, as the team ranks 14th in RPI, a combination of a team’s winning percentage and strength of schedule which is frequently cited in determining how good a team is. They are also ranked 41st of the 351 Division I teams in ESPN’s BPI metric, with also accounts for score, pace of play, game location, and injuries. Additionally, Monmouth has seven wins on the road or a neutral court, more than any other team in basketball, making their record even more impressive. For comparison, Kentucky and North Carolina are both 9-2, but are 0-1 and 0-2 on the road, respectively. Monmouth is 5-2 in true road games. This experience and ability in winning away from their home court makes Monmouth a much more dangerous opponent.
However, Monmouth has much more to offer than just numbers. For the casual fan, and really all fans for that matter, the Monmouth bench has become a phenomenon so talked about and entertaining that they almost take away from the on-court success of the team. With energetic celebrations of big plays and choreographed dances and skits including baseball, Star Wars, and sleigh riding, players just might use up more energy off the court than on it. The bench has become so famous recently that members even appeared on The Today Show.
Some people are criticizing the bench for becoming the center of attention and detracting from the team’s great season. I couldn’t disagree more. This is what college basketball is all about- going into every game as if it was your last, battling hard, and having a blast. These kids are having the time of their lives, and they have every right to go all out. The idea that the bench takes anything away from the team is absurd. If not for the bench, Monmouth is just another good basketball program that goes under the radar because they aren’t in a power conference. However, now Monmouth is being featured on ESPN and other media outlets. People know who this team is, and they want to see them in action.
Remember Florida Gulf Coast a couple years ago- the #15 seed in March Madness that made it to the Sweet 16? Their high-flying, spectacular dunking display made them instant fan favorites and a team everyone tuned in to following their opening round win against Georgetown. While the hype has obviously cooled down now, this team put Florida Gulf Coast on the map, and even had people talking about them the season following their miraculous run. Monmouth is taking a similar path to Florida Gulf Coast by getting national attention through providing an entertaining product. It’s great for both Monmouth and college basketball as a whole.
Let’s face it: the Monmouth bench probably isn’t a big deal if the team’s sitting at 2-9 right now. However, the unique combination of the bench and the team’s impressive non-conference play could propel them to a spot in March Madness. Here’s the deal: there are 32 conferences in Division I for men’s basketball. On Selection Sunday, there will be 36 at-large bids handed out to complete the 68-team field, and if you aren’t from one of 11 conferences, you aren’t getting one. The six power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) will dominate the at-large births. The American and Atlantic 10 will also take a couple bids each, since they are almost as deep as the main conferences, but don’t have the name recognition or overall talent of a power conference. Then there’s the Missouri Valley, Mountain West, and West Coast Conference. These are decent conferences usually dominated by a couple teams, leading to one or two at-larges.
This all means that if you’re in the remaining 2/3 of Division I, you’ll need to win your conference tournament in order to make the Big Dance, barring rare exceptions (only one in the last three years). As a member of the MAAC, Monmouth is part of that 2/3. For instance, last season, teams such as the 27-5 Murray State, 26-8 Iona, and 25-6 UC Davis all won the regular season championship for their conference but missed out on March Madness by failing to win their conference tournaments. The reason why is simple: strength of schedule. While some are harder than others, these conferences would be cakewalks for most power conference teams. So when a Murray State, whose biggest in-conference competition comes from the likes of Belmont and Eastern Kentucky, gets compared with an NC State team who, despite being 20-13, has wins over Duke and Louisville and plays in the brutal ACC which had five other March Madness teams, the committee will nearly always choose an NC State.
There are plenty potential Murray State’s this year as well. Here are some: Hawaii is 7-1, South Dakota State is 8-2, Akron is 8-2, Tennessee State is 9-2, and Grand Canyon is 10-2. All great records that might suggest these are some diamonds in the rough. However, not one of the teams has a single win against a team in the RPI top 50. In fact, combined these teams are just 3-5 against RPI top 100 teams. You can forget wins and losses entirely. Out of 51 total games played, these schools have only eight contests against teams in roughly the top 100 teams in the country, or 1.6 per team as non-conference play closes out before 2016. And you better believe the quality wins the Selection Sunday committee is looking for aren’t coming in-conference. Here is where the problem for these teams lies.
Let’s say for example that South Dakota State ends up 25-5 after the regular season, which would be a fantastic season for them. Then the conference tournament comes and they end up losing in the finals, bringing their record to 27-6. With their best win coming against TCU, a team that will be lucky not to finish last in the Big 12, how can this team possibly make March Madness? And honestly, the problem is only half South Dakota State’s lack of big wins. If they enter Selection Sunday 27-6, that means they will have suffered four losses against bad opponents, which will bring their resume down even further. There’s just no chance for an at-large, and I’m not even sure an undefeated rest of the regular season would do the job. At 30-3, the Jackrabbits can make one heck of an argument, but will still be plagued by a poor RPI and strength of schedule. Sure, there’s a chance, but that path still requires 22 straight wins, not exactly ideal. You want your resume to be good enough that you can absorb a couple losses.
Now, there are actually a couple of teams in the Monmouth category with a couple of decent wins under their belts. It’s a shorter list, one that includes the likes of Arkansas-Little Rock, UT Arlington, and Chattanooga. There are two important differences between Monmouth and these teams, however: 1) Monmouth has a more, higher-quality wins, and 2) you’ve heard of Monmouth. Through the big wins and big celebrations, Monmouth has made a statement and entered the mainstream. They’re beginning to receive votes in the AP and Coaches’ Polls and receive credit for the basketball they’ve been playing. And by the time March comes, they’ll have easily the best shot out of these smaller teams (besides Valparaiso, who are very likely to be dancing) of receiving an at-large bid. While national exposure technically shouldn’t do anything to help a team’s chances with the committee, it can’t hurt their chances, and they’ll have the support of the nation.
Until mid-March, however, the Monmouth Hawks will keep putting on a show, the only way they know how.