Head coach King Rice (UNC ’91), helped by assistants Derrick Phelps (’94), and Brian Reese (’94), has taken on the herculean task of trying to restore Monmouth basketball to respectability and relevance. Just six years ago, the Hawks qualified for their third NCAA berth in six years out of the Northeast Conference, but the coaching job become available after a string of twenty loss seasons, including a 9-21 mark in 2010-11. Rice, with help from some old friends, is determined to turn things around.
The three coaches were teammates on the 1991 team that won the ACC Tournament and advanced to the Final Four, and Phelps and Reese of course went on to be starters for the 1993 national championship team. When Phelps and Reese stepped onto the Smith Center floor Saturday evening for Monmouth’s shootaround, neither could resist immediately stepping on their old court and firing up jumpers. Reese looked positively giddy, especially when asked by a reporter to re-enact his game winning shot against Wake Forest in 1992, while Phelps took the occasion to challenge the Hawks players to see if they could step up and “get some buckets up in here.”
For Rice, however, the homecoming was (almost) all business. “Go ahead, get your pictures, do what you’ve got to do,” said Rice to his charges as they unpacked their bags and stepped on the court while gawking at the banners high above. “Then get ready so we can do what we’ve got to do.”
Rice made it clear pregame he expected his team to play hard Sunday, and he hoped his club could make Carolina work for a victory. Phelps and Rice each said that the key to guarding Kendall Marshall was to try to pick him up full court and block his vision, so as to prevent his characteristic quick passes ahead. Reese said he has played against many players on the current team in summer games in Chapel Hill, though he simply laughed when asked if he could shut down Harrison Barnes. “No, he’s on a different level. A forty-year-old man isn’t going to shut down Harrison Barnes.”
The bigger picture is not Sunday’s game, but trying to rebuild a winning ethos at Monmouth, while at the same time shifting styles of play. In recent years, Monmouth had been a zone team running a Princeton-offense, trying to win games played in the 40s and 50s. Rice says his target is to have his teams scoring in the 70s and 80s, and eventually shift to aggressive man-to-man defense, a transition he acknowledges has been difficult for his team. Monmouth lost its first four games of the year by over 30 points, and took a 2-11 record into the tilt in Chapel Hill.
Rice has plenty of people cheering for him in his efforts to turn things around. Before Sunday’s game, the Monmouth staff was joined on the court in pregame warm-ups by long-time Carolina coach Bill Guthridge for a ten-minute chat. (Guthridge simply chuckled when asked if had been giving Rice strategy tips on how to win Sunday’s game).
Welcoming the Monmouth staff and team at the Saturday shootaround was Rice’s former point guard mentor Phil Ford. "He's just one of the most competitive people I've ever met,” recalled Ford. “He wasn't the most athletic, skilled point guard we've ever hard at North Carolina, but it's hard to say there's been anyone who's been a tougher player or more of a competitor or played harder than King. He did it every day in practice and every night at the game."
Ford added that he always thought Rice would go into coaching and wasn’t surprised at all to see him return to Chapel Hill as an opposing head coach. Rice confirmed he had long had an interest in coaching, but acknowledged he had a lot of growing up to do when he first arrived in Chapel Hill and had made mistakes along the way.
“Coach Smith did a great job of picking the right type of guys to fit what he wanted, “ said Rice. “I grew up a lot while I was here. Obviously I had some problems when I first came down here but I grew as a person the whole time and I'm thankful that I was here with Coach Smith and he continues to help me with my life.”
Phelps and Reese believe Rice will get the program going in the right direction in time, though they are fully aware of both the recruiting challenge and the coaching challenge ahead of them. Asked about his goals for this year, Rice said without hesitation, “We want to win as many games as possible,” though he said another twenty-loss season was highly likely. “We have to change their mindset to let them know that it’s okay for Monmouth to win games also.”
On Sunday Rice added, “I’m from Carolina, so we’re going to do the things I learned here. We’re going to do things the right way, we’re going to play ball the right way . . . We’re going to build through recruiting, we’re going to recruit the right kind of kids—no short cuts. One of the things I’m most proud of is that our team has about a 3.0 (GPA) and it wasn’t like that when I first got here… I love our kids, they give you an honest effort. We’ve just have got to continue to recruit and find the right young men to build with.”
The game itself followed the expected script. The Tar Heels jumped out to a quick 12-0 lead, leading Rice to take a timeout after just over three minutes. But the Hawks acquitted themselves well over the next few minutes. Jesse Steele got the visitors on the board with a nice backdoor cut at Dexter Strickland’s expense coming out of the time out, and then reserve freshman guard Andrew Nicholas drained consecutive three-pointers to cut the lead to 15-10.
The Hawks got no closer the rest of the way, and by halftime trailed 57-26, having been outrebounded 28-10 and having allowed Carolina to shoot 62 percent from the field. Even so, the visitors showed some positive traits, registering four steals, assists on eight of their 11 field goals, and committing a respectable seven turnovers. While Monmouth did not prevent Marshall from getting his usual quota of assists, neither did they concede embarrassing fast break baskets in which no one got back.
Monmouth did not pack it in at halftime, either. Rice spent a minute to chat up officials as he left the court at halftime, then engaged in some highly unusual banter prior to the second half with Roy Williams.
In between, he evidently got his team to play in the second half—they outscored the Tar Heel starters 14-10 in the first four minute interval after the break, then won the next segment as well, 9-4, to cut the lead to 71-49. Rice could be seen exhorting his players by name on every defensive possession, and Nicholas and Steele again got hot on the offensive end, with Nicholas tallying 13 points in the first eight minutes of the half.
Of course in the long run it wasn’t nearly enough—after allowing the Hawks to cut the lead to twenty points, the Tar Heels coasted to an eventual 102-65 victory. Biscuits were not secure until the final minute, and Rice was far from pleased with the foul call that sent Patrick Crouch to the line to get point No. 100. “We were trying to win the second half,” noted Rice.
That didn’t quite happen, but Rice has won over the confidence of his players. Rice is “just a hard-nosed guy” said point guard Steele, who tallied 17 points Sunday. “If you're not tough, you can't play for him.”
Playing for Rice, added shooting star Nicholas, is “awesome. He just wants us to play tough and work hard, and if we do that I'm telling you we're going to have success in the future. He's a great coach. He'll get on us, but it's just positive stuff. He gives us positives all the time and just wants what's best for us… With the coaching staff we have, if not this year then in the next couple of years we're going to be a winning program.”
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.