Tuesday December 1st, 2015

The college basketball season may be young, but there’s already a surprising feel-good story emerging. The Monmouth Hawks haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2006, but were expected from the start to challenge MAAC favorite Iona for the conference’s automatic bid. While the Gaels haven’t been very sharp in rough early losses to Valparaiso and Oregon State, the Hawks have looked like upset specialists.

Monmouth started the season with an overtime win over UCLA in Los Angeles, which initially seemed like a poor loss for the Bruins. Since that night it has grown increasingly clear not only that UCLA isn’t as good as many anticipated, but also that the Hawks are no fluke. This might have been hard for people to believe at first—after all, Monmouth entered the year without a single AP top 25 win in its history.

Then in Florida on Thanksgiving, the Hawks beat an AP top 25 opponent for the first time in school history, knocking off then No. 17 Notre Dame, 70–68. They would go on to lose by three to Dayton the next day, but rebounded on Sunday with a 10-point win over USC (reversing a Nov. 16 loss to the Trojans). Dayton and USC aren’t bad losses at all and, aside from Georgetown on Dec. 15, Monmouth likely won’t face a team as good as either the rest of the way.

MORE: How to turn around an un-turn-around-able program

At the center of the Hawks’ early success is the emergence of junior guard Justin Robinson, whose 24.4 points per game average is higher than all but five Division I players. His 22 points against Notre Dame was his second-lowest total in the team’s first six contests, and he’s posted five straight 20-point games. Compare that to last season, when Robinson had four 20-point games all year. Also leading the way for Monmouth are redshirt freshman guard Micah Seaborn and junior guard Collin Stewart, who combined with Robinson form a potent backcourt.

As a whole, the Hawks do a couple vital things exceptionally well: they take care of the ball and they make free throws. Both were evident in their win over the Irish. Monmouth only turned the ball over six times in that game, and made 18 of its 22 attempts from the stripe (Robinson made 14-of-15 free throws himself). The Hawks’ strong play in those areas helped them win that game, and their zero turnovers in the second half was key to overcoming an eight-point halftime deficit. On the season, Monmouth turns the ball over on 13.5% of its possessions, a mark that is 11th-best in the country, according to kenpom.com. Its 79.2% free throw percentage is No. 7 in the country.

For as much attention the Hawks have garnered for their on-court play, they are actually being overshadowed ... by their own bench. Monmouth’s creative bench celebrations during these early-season upsets have gained them all sorts of fans, and that’s taking into consideration that most of America is currently distracted by football. This team seems destined to become America’s tournament sweetheart if it can get to the Big Dance, and the Hawks bench could be the next March Madness craze.

What happened to Wichita State?

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The Shockers entered this season with a ton of optimism and a top-10 ranking, and with good reason: the dynamic guard duo of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet returned to school for their senior year. Just a few weeks ago, Wichita State was considered (along with Gonzaga) to have the best mid-major shot at making a deep run NCAA tournament run. But VanVleet has been plagued with a hamstring injury since the preseason and has missed the last four games. His absence has proved to be devastating, as the Shockers have opened the year 2–4 with losses to Tulsa, Alabama, USC and Iowa, becoming the first team to lose four games in November as a ranked team in the history of the AP poll.

Baker has shined on offense, averaging 20.2 points and shooting 41% from three, but he can’t do it alone. Wichita State has shot the ball terribly, ranking No. 314 in the nation in kenpom.com’s effective field goal percentage. The biggest culprit is freshman Ty Taylor II, who has made just 11 of his 49 shot attempts this year.

Gregg Marshall’s group could be in danger of missing out on the Big Dance if it doesn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. There’s still plenty of time for the Shockers to turn their play around, but they don’t have a currently ranked team remaining on the schedule, so it will be difficult to build a resume strong enough to earn an at-large bid.

Wichita Eagle/Getty

Game of the Week: Belmont at Valparaiso

Thursday at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3

This game lacks a little luster since Belmont already has three losses, but it’s still a solid matchup featuring two of last season’s NCAA tournament teams. Valpo got off to a great start this year, trouncing Iona, beating Oregon State and taking No. 25 Oregon to the brink in Eugene on Nov. 22. The Crusaders are looking to bounce back from a three-point loss to Ball State on Saturday and will be playing at home for the first time since mid-November. The matchup will feature a strong-shooting Belmont offense against a steady Valparaiso defense, not to mention First-Team All-Horizon pick Alec Peters.

Player to Watch: New Mexico State forward Pascal Siakam

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​Siakam is quietly having one of the best starts of the season of anyone in the country, and there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. That would also mean you’ve never heard his story. The 6’9” sophomore and Cameroon native didn’t even start playing basketball until he was a teenager, at which point he made the decision to chase his new passion in America, at God’s Academy in Dallas.

After redshirting in 2013–14 and having a solid freshman season last year, Siakam is now averaging 29.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists through the Aggies’ first six games. He’s posted a double-double in five of those and already has two 30-point performances, including a 35-point, 13-rebound effort in a recent overtime win over Robert Morris. New Mexico State is gunning for its fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and is off to a 4–2 start this season behind Siakam’s stellar numbers.

Stat of the Week: 10.8

That key stat belongs to Oakland guard and double-double machine Kahlil Felder, but it’s not his points or rebound average—it’s his assists. Felder, the Horizon League preseason Player of the Year, has yet to dish out fewer than 10 assists or score fewer than 20 points in a game this season. His 10.8 assists average is tops in the country, even higher than that of Michigan State breakout star and do-it-all-guy Denzel Valentine.

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