WEST LONG BRANCH – The workout inside OceanFirst Bank Center began with Monmouth coach King Rice leading a drill in which everyone spent five minutes in a defensive stance, arms flailing as they slid from side-to-side, with a ton of chatter.
And it was that enthusiasm that dominated the 90-minute session, as the young Hawks began building toward the Nov. 9 opener at Seton Hall.
“It’s very, very exciting,” Rice said. “That’s why I’m OK with the mistakes because they’re so young and they’re trying so hard. But the energy they are coming with has been outstanding and it just makes you excited.”
That enthusiasm will be tested during a tough non-conference slate featuring games against four high-major foes, before their first Colonial Athletic Association season gets underway.
“It’s going to be a challenge. We have a hard schedule,” he said. “But the way we’re approaching it, I think we’ll outplay some people. Our togetherness is off the chart already. So I just like the energy of this group. It’s way better than most first two days.”
Without a true senior on the roster, a group of players who have spent the past few seasons learning from older guys, must step into feature roles.
No one on the court Wednesday logged more meaningful minutes last season than junior forward Myles Foster, whose average minutes (12.4), points (5.3) and rebounds (3.0) are tops on the roster, and include a 13-point, eight-rebound night at St. John’s.
“People know these guys but they haven’t really seen them play,” Foster said. “But it’s one of those things where they have been practicing for two years. I think they are ready.
“I think this year you are going to see just a lot of hard-working guys playing together. Playing team basketball, not just relying on one person. We’re going to be playing hard for each other.”
1. Size in paint
The first thing that strikes you is how big Monmouth is up front.
Freshman Amaan Sandhu is at least 7-feet tall, and wide, while classmate Jaret Valencia, who joined his teammates for the first time Wednesday, is 6-9, and very long. With Klemen Vuga and Tadhg Crowley at 6-10 and 6-9 Jarvis Vaughan, the Hawks have some size.
It creates some different options in terms of lineups this season. One of the more intriguing ones includes Foster at power forward and Vaughan on the wing, along with one of the true centers, including Vuga, Crowley and Sandhu, or possibly Valencia.
“They wanted to move me to the four this year, that was kind of the emphasis,” Foster said. “Getting more size, more athleticism, more length, and having Jarvis play more of the wing spot versus the four spot, so we open that up more. He can shoot it really well, and I’ve been working more inside and out, just so we can be more physical and help our rebounding and defense.”
2. Immediate help?
What makes Valencia’s presence so intriguing is how well regarded he was as a recruit, rated three stars by 24/7 Sports, with offers from Big East, Pac-12 and Big Ten programs, including Rutgers.
Could Valencia make an immediate impact?
“I think he could,” Rice said.
“This is the first real time he has been on the court with us, but I love his energy and how hard he played and his willingness to put his body in there on defense to make you uncomfortable. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what he’ll be able to do but I just love his energy since he’s been here.”
3. Guards wanted
As a group of players worked on their dunk moves post-practice, Jayden Doyle flashed just how athletic he is. And the 6-4 Doyle, who sat out his freshman season with an injury, looms as one of the most important unknowns.
His emergence as a consistent force in the guard rotation would be huge. Rice has talked about his ability as a defender, and now he’ll get a chance to show his offensive capabilities.
In terms of the second and third guards on the court at any given time, sophomore Tahron Allen, who averaged 6.4 minutes a year ago, and junior Jack Holmstrom, who logged four minutes, are the only two who got playing time. Freshman Andrew Ball (6-8) and Jack Collins (6-5) are also likely to get on the court immediately.
Collectively, Monmouth needs the group to be able to knock down shots and play solid defense. It will be interesting to see who emerges.
4. Point (guard) of emphasis
As the Hawks worked through a defense-oriented 3-on-3 sessions, Myles Ruth darted out of nowhere to make a steal, before he swiped another pass a few minutes later.
Look at any of Monmouth’s top teams over the years, and they’ve all had strong play at point guard, with Justin Robinson, John Giraldo, Rahsaan Johnson, Tyler Azzarelli and Shavar Reynolds all pulling the strings for 20-plus win teams.
Now Ruth, who started 14 games as a freshman before yielding to Reynolds last season, is in charge. He’s shown flashes of his ability the past two seasons, but now must do it consistently. And he may have to log a lot of minutes, with sophomore Sam Fagan, who drained a pair of 3-pointers in quick succession Wednesday, and walk-on Jakari Spence the only other point guards on the roster.
5. International flavor
It’s hard not to notice Sandhu. While he lacks to offensive polish graduate transfer center Walker Miller exhibited in the seven-footer’s one season at Monmouth, Sandhu, the first male player from the NBA Academy India to earn a Division 1 scholarship, is a physical presence in the paint.
“He is big and he can shoot. He has a nice touch. But right now he has to get in better shape so he can do it for a longer period of time,” Rice said.
He’s one of three international players on the roster in Vuga, from Slovenia, and Valencia, a native of Columbia.
“A bunch of great kids,” Foster said. “What people don’t really realize, for them, it’s really bigger than basketball. They’re representing their whole country, so every day they take it so seriously. Not that we don’t all try to put on a show for our families, it’s important for us, but for them it’s on such a larger scale.
“When Amaan goes back home he is a hero to that young kid. He’s just leading the way and I don’t think he even realizes how big that is, but in 10 years he will.”