WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — The celebrations begin in secret. Not even Monmouth coach King Rice gets a glimpse of his bench’s elaborate performances before they go live in games—in fact, he rarely sees them during the games either, so focused is he on the action on the court. It isn’t until he boards the bus home and opens his text messages that he discovers, mostly through links to dozens of Vine loops, his backups’ best moves.
Most of the celebrations come after a Hawks basket and incorporate the three-point hand gesture, which looks like an O.K. sign. There is the Pirate Ship, in which three players row on the floor and the fourth peers onto the court with a three-point telescope. There is the OMG, in which the entire bench erupts in absurd disbelief. And there is the Human Hoop, in which one player is held in the air as a hoop and another dunks on him. The celebrations have gotten Monmouth even more attention than its three-top 40 wins this season and have helped turn the Hawks into one of the biggest stories of the young season.
For the Monmouth bench brain trust—freshman guards Tyler Robinson and Louie Pillari, sophomore guard Daniel Pillari (Louie’s cousin) and junior forward Greg Noack—the spotlight means each idea must be carefully considered before it’s choreographed. So far, only three have been rejected. The first was the Human Limbo, in which two players would hold Daniel Pillari up as a bar as the fourth limboed underneath them. It was discarded due to a lack of space. The second was what Daniel Pillari calls the “live birth,” in which he would have laid on his back, spread his legs on the floor and delivered a water bottle “baby” to Noack, who would then swaddle it in a towel and return it to Pillari. It was tossed midway through the first rehearsal, partially because it was so outrageous, but also because it didn’t incorporate the three-point sign.
The final rejected idea was the Human Scissors. Pillari thought it was too over-the-top, but on Nov. 29, against USC, Hawks guard Micah Seaborn hit a three from the right wing and Pillari couldn’t contain himself. He motioned to Noack to do the scissors. As Pillari was flipping onto his hands, he spotted Rice in the corner of his eye and thought, “He is going to boot me out of this game and kick me off the team.” Rice didn’t see it until after the game, but when he did, he thought it was hilarious.
“There’s no approval process,” Rice says. “They’re good boys from good families, so I’m putting complete faith in them. I always see [the celebrations] after everyone else, and most of the time, my first reaction is, ‘That’s funny as heck.’”
Monmouth has kept its bench busy cheering this year, having already upset UCLA, USC and Notre Dame—all either on the road or at neutral sites. And as the celebrations have gained attraction, the Hawks have been featured in the Washington Post, TheNew York Times, USA Today, Fox Sports and SportsCenter. Led by a diminutive but dominant point guard in 5'8", 175-pound junior Justin Robinson (Tyler’s brother) and bolstered by a disciplined defense and strong three-point shooting, Monmouth already feels like an NCAA tournament team. As the Hawks prepare for their final marquee nonconference contest at Georgetown on Tuesday night, the question becomes: How do they ensure the show lasts until the Big Dance?
It took King Rice 20 years to get his first head coaching job. He had played point guard for Dean Smith at North Carolina, and after leading the Tar Heels to the Final Four as a senior in 1991, he began his career as an assistant at Oregon at the age of 22 for the 1992–93 season. The next season, he moved onto Illinois State, where he worked for five seasons under current Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. Stallings was the man Rice called from a jail cell in July 1996 after he was arrested for driving under the influence. But instead of firing Rice, Stallings made sure he got help. Rice quit drinking that day and says he has been sober since.
But it would take another 15 years—during which he left coaching from 1998–2001 to run a community and pro training facility with former North Carolina teammate Rick Fox—and another stint under Stallings (this time at Vanderbilt from 2006 to '11) before an AD trusted Rice enough to give him a head coaching gig. What he inherited from Dave Calloway at Monmouth in March 2011 was a team that played in a new $53 million arena, known on campus as the Mac, but had also endured five straight losing seasons. Rice’s Hawks went 12–20 and 10–21 in their first two seasons before jumping from the Northeast Conference to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the 2013–14 campaign. That season, the Hawks started a respectable 10–10 before losing nine straight and 11 of their last 12.
Rice knew he needed a new strategy, and he thought back to his time at Illinois State when Stallings deployed the pack-line defense. The pack-line, popularized and perfected by Dick Bennett at Wisconsin-Green Bay and his son Tony, at Virginia, emphasizes stacking the paint, preventing dribble penetration and forcing contested late-shot-clock jumpers. After the 2014 season, Rice invited Matt Woodley, a former Tony Bennett assistant at Washington State, to teach him everything about the pack-line. In 2015, Monmouth’s defensive efficiency improved from 157th in the country to 115th. This season, the Hawks have the No. 53 defense, according to kenpom.com.
On offense, they have one of the fastest tempos in the country, with an average possession length of just 14 seconds. Their primary weapons are Justin Robinson and Seaborn. Robinson is the 27th most efficient offensive player (122.7 O-Rating) among those who use more than 24% of their team’s possessions (26.8%). Robinson (21.3 points per game) and Seaborn (14.7ppg) are grateful for the amount of attention the team—and particularly the bench—has gotten so far.
“The brotherhood has gotten so much closer because of them,” Robinson says. “The bench brings extreme energy every day. They work extremely hard in practice, and that’s a side that people don’t really understand. They’re just on the bench because they go to school here with guys that work really hard as well. If they would have gone to other schools, they would definitely be playing and possibly even starting.”
Seaborn, who played briefly at Deion Sanders’s Prime Prep Academy in Dallas, is friends with NBA rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and former Baylor star Isaiah Austin, and they have helped make Monmouth’s bench famous in NBA circles.
“[My family and friends] tell me the bench is their favorite part of the team,” Seaborn says. “A lot of people will call me, say ‘good game,’ and then go straight into talking about the bench. I like it. I love them getting the credit for the work they do every day.”
The celebrations actually began last season. During one game, Greg Noack spontaneously decided to act as a bull, holding the three-signs as horns and running toward Pillari, who was holding a towel. The rest have been created collectively, but they didn’t gain widespread attention until after the Notre Dame game on Thanksgiving at the Advocare tournament in Orlando. After the 70–68 win, cameras caught Daniel Pillari “feasting” on an air Thanksgiving dinner. As the Hawks continued their tournament run, the bench held mandatory meetings each night after team meal and scouting session. Being late is a serious offense, but no one has erred yet, so no punishment has been established. “Maybe you’ll have to play some minutes,” Daniel Pillari says.
Among the Hawks, The Revival, in which Robinson resuscitates Pillari after an apparent heart attack, is the favorite. The best performance goes to Tyler Robinson in Superheroes, in which he plays Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games franchise. “Tyler kills it in that one,” Pillari says. “He had the perfect form getting those arrows out of the quiver.” Plans for new celebrations are kept closely guarded, but Daniel and Louie Pillari hinted that inspirations for future choreographies include Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and something from the Renaissance era.
As reporters have poured onto campus, Rice has reminded his players that being themselves got them all this attention and that nothing needs to change now that they have it. Rice’s solution for continued success is simply to stay the course. He believes the bench is a critical aspect to that success, and even chastised the group for its low energy during a timeout in a 96–86 loss at Canisius on Dec. 4.
Of course, all the success has come with some unintended consequences. Broadcasts often go to split screens now while Monmouth is on offense, which means Rice spends a lot more time on camera. Against USC, his mother caught him saying the f-word and called him after the game to complain. And the NCAA responded to an anonymous complaint about the bench but ultimately ruled that the players weren’t violating any regulations.
“We don’t aim to make it about the other team or go on the court,” Daniel Pillari says. “What would we have done wrong? It’s clean, family fun. It reminds people what college basketball is all about. We’re not getting paid. We’re just having fun out here.”
At home, the Hawks are beloved: Sunday’s 73–54 win over Wagner came before a crowd of 3,911, their first sellout since last Dec. 28, when they hosted the Big Ten’s Rutgers. In that game, many in the crowd came to see the Scarlet Knights. On Sunday, all eyes were on the home team.
And across the country, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps if Duke’s or Kansas’s benches behaved like this, it would warrant a critical discussion on First Take, but for now, the country has embraced the small school from New Jersey. “I think people would be upset if it was UNC,” Rice says. “They’d say they’re being cocky. They give us a benefit because we’re the underdog. People are talking about us without even being able to pronounce our school’s name.”
They’re also beginning to bestow on the Hawks one of college basketball’s best honors.
“People are already calling us Cinderella,” Pilari says.
Talking about March Madness all season long is unavoidable in college basketball. For these Hawks, the NCAA tournament isn’t an unattainable dream. They seem built for sustained success with an efficient defense and a balanced offense. Although three-point shooting is a major part of their offense—30.7% of their shots come from behind the arc, and they hit 37% of those attempts—they’re more dependent on drawing fouls and converting their free throws. At 81.6%, they’re the fourth best team in the country from the charity stripe. And with a 15.4% turnover rate, they’re the 35th best team at holding on to the ball.
Since its inception in 1984, the MAAC has only three times put more than one team into the NCAA tournament. The Hawks have three losses, but all were on the road or at neutral sites, and two were against kenpom.com top-40 teams. The three top-40 wins at the very least balance the ledger, and have players believing an at-large bid is possible even if they slip up in the conference tournament. “I don’t want to be known as a Cinderella team because we’ve already beaten good teams,” Seaborn says. “I’d rather be the 5-seed than the 12. I want to end Cinderella’s run.”
They may not fulfill that ambition, but in the next four months, the Hawks should have no shortage of reasons—or ways—to celebrate.