WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. (AP) Monmouth may have the most popular bench in America, and the guys playing on the court are also making quite a name for themselves.
The Hawks reserves have gained national acclaim for their entertaining routines in reaction to big moments during games, shared quickly online through Vines and GIFs. There have been many during Monmouth's 4-2 start, as the mid-major from Central New Jersey is emerging as college basketball's early feel-good story.
Asked if there's a buzz on campus, junior guard Justin Robinson said ''Definitely. More people are saying hi, the anticipation for the first home game is starting to rise. It's pretty good.''
After 20 years as an assistant at Oregon, Illinois State, Providence and Vanderbilt, Rice figured he could turn Monmouth around quickly. Instead, ''I lost a lot of games and a lot of weight,'' he said.
Athletic Director Marilyn McNeil, who told Rice she wanted basketball to be relevant within five years of his hiring, re-signed him last year despite the losing record. Two of those seasons, Monmouth was in the Northeast Conference.
''That kind of relaxed everybody, and I became a better coach because I wasn't as stressed out,'' Rice said. The Hawks responded with an 18-15 record, their highest win total since 2005-06, and reached the MAAC Tournament semifinals.
This season started with an overtime victory at UCLA - the program's first win over a Pac-12 opponent.
''That was kind of surreal,'' said Robinson, who's averaging 24.8 points. ''I didn't want to go to bed because I didn't want to wake up and have it not be true.''
''We were a team that thought we could be good,'' Rice said. ''When we pulled that one off, I think that solidified in our kids' minds that hey if we stick together we can beat some teams.''
The 70-68 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 26 was the school's first over a ranked opponent.
''Going into the game, all over the country we were hearing, `Aww you can't win this game,''' Robinson said. ''But my team knew we had the opportunity to win it. It was a mindset thing.''
Sunday produced an 83-73 win over USC for third place in the AdvoCare Invitational in Florida.
''I truly think it has been amazing,'' Rice said. ''As a coach, you don't want things to happen too quick for your kids and you want your kids to deal with it the right way. But this is really unprecedented for all of us.''
Rice insists Monmouth has yet to play its best basketball. He reminded his players that although ''this thing has gotten really big pretty fast,'' the conference games are what count.
The Hawks seem to grasp that. Given Monday off after returning from Florida, Robinson was in the gym after scoring an AdvoCare-record 77 points. He was later joined by several teammates.
''It's good to know we're not going to be complacent and we know we have more work to do,'' Robinson said. ''Everybody on this team loves the game and everybody wants a championship.''
Other starters are redshirt freshman Micah Seaborn (13.8 points per game), senior guard Deon Jones (7.7 rebounds per game), junior guard Je'lon Hornbeak and junior center Zac Tillman. The deep rotation, which has a nice chemistry, includes Collin Stewart, Chris Brady, Austin Tilghman, Diago Quinn and Josh James.
''Those kids go through everything the rest of the guys do,'' he said. ''I'm happy people have noticed what they're doing. As long as they keep it clean, I'm really cool with it.''