Every year, a handful of all-but-unknown programs play surprisingly well against a big-time opponent or two while zooming to the top of smaller conferences, and enter national radar screens well before NCAA tournament time. If such a team has a star player or famous coach or distinctive style, it can become seriously overhyped, even as an underdog.
Then, even though at GK Central, we love upsets more than anyone, we have to step in as killjoys. Last year, for example, we warned you away from Buffalo, Wofford and Eastern Washington. All were fun teams with interesting characters, and all became at least somewhat trendy upset picks, but our statistical model just did not see them as resembling past Killers enough to succeed.
This season, among teams likely to be double-digit seeds, precisely one has a reputation that has mushroomed far beyond its capacity to take down an opponent in March: the Monmouth Hawks (GK Rating: 4.9, meaning estimated odds of just 4.9 percent to defeat an average Giant). Don’t believe the hype!
Yes, the Hawks are a terrific story. They already have 22 wins, more than they totaled in 2012 and 2013 combined, including upsets of Georgetown, Notre Dame and UCLA. And of course, they have an insanely creative bench. But you know when you didn’t see the bench choreographing their version of the Sistine Chapel or Katniss Everdeen? When Monmouth needed a 17-2 run to clip Rider by one point last week. Which indicates the first problem with the Hawks: Overall, they’re just not as good as you probably think. Our basic power rankings rates them just 96th in the nation. BPI pegs them at No. 74, while KenPom is more generous, placing Monmouth 53rd, still below a slew of less-heralded potential Killers.
Fans and experts alike may be focused on Monmouth’s signature wins while ignoring their damning losses to Canisius, Army and Manhattan, all sub-200 squads. It’s also worth noting that UCLA and Georgetown don’t look like tourney teams, according to Joe Lunardi. Further, Monmouth has a high-scoring rep -- the Hawks have scored 80 or more points 16 times -- but their offense isn’t especially efficient. The Hawks average an adjusted 109.1 points per 100 possessions, which is just 75th in the country. The Hawks’ pace inflates their raw scoring.
That leads to Monmouth’s second problem: The Hawks hardly resemble previous Killers in the statistical categories that matter most when it comes to upending Giants. For example, Monmouth plays outrageously fast, averaging 74 possessions per game (ranking 17th nationally). Killers typically succeed by slowing the pace, which limits the number of individual possesions they must win over the course of a game. Yes, fast underdogs like VCU and Ohio have won before, but speeding things up generally isn’t the best method to beat a more talented foe. In November, Monmouth allowed USC 71 shots, and got run off the floor.
The Hawks don’t rebound at either end, either. On offense, they grab 26.3 percent of available rebounds, ranking 285th nationally, and at the other end, they let opponents collect 31.4 percent of misses, ranking 248th. Giant Killers win by generating extra possessions. Monmouth gives them away.
Monmouth does come out ahead in the turnover battle. The Hawks cough up the ball on just 16.3 percent of their possessions, while they take it away 19.6 percent of the time on defense. That’s not surprising, considering the brilliance of 5-foot-8 point guard Justin Robinson, whom we admire, and who actually has more steals (58) than turnovers (54) this season.
Even with Robinson leading a powerful perimeter posse, Monmouth doesn’t employ another trick important to Giant Killers past: long-range bombing. Even though the Hawks are hitting 38.9 percent of their 3-pointers, they take only 34.1 percent of their shots from long range. That’s 207th in the country. If that’s not bad enough, they let opponents take an astounding 40.6 percent of their shots from 3-point range (326th). Remarkably, that hasn’t burned Monmouth yet, because those foes are hitting just 30.8 percent of their deep shots, giving the Hawks the 23rd-best 3-point field-goal defense in the country. That’s actually a massive warning sign. Studies have shown that much of 3-point shooting defense is random, which means the most effective way to defend against 3-pointers is to prevent attempts altogether. In contrast, a shooting percentage as low as the rate allowed by Monmouth should regress to the mean over time. Add in the fact that the Hawks should be facing better opponents in the tournament, and that’s a scary proposition.
So yes, the Hawks have a dynamic floor leader in Robinson. They have wing scorers in Micah Seaborn and Deon Jones. They even have a pair of 6-foot-10 bangers in Chris Brady and Zac Tillman, who might not be the most talented duo but at least can look opposing bigs in the eye. Yes, Monmouth posted impressive early-season wins over power-conference opponents, but overall, the Hawks look like a version of the “schoolyard bully" that we’ve written about in the past: built to dominate MAAC foes, not to pursue the kind of high-risk, high-reward strategies Killers usually deploy to knock off tournament Giants.
That’s no insult. Just a warning that if you were planning to ride Monmouth for a couple of rounds in your bracket next month, you might want to slow your roll just a bit.
Thanks to Liz Bouzarth, John Harris and Kevin Hutson of Furman University for research assistance.