Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Retire The Jersey

In a hockey hotbed of Quinnipiac's caliber, basketball was once the ignored, attention-starved stepchild with nary a Christmas or birthday present in sight. Nothing.

Even through win streaks and memorable recruiting classes, the program was an afterthought. They weren't just taking a back seat to baseball, hockey, and lacrosse, they were forced to double up on the bus while everyone else had their own seat.

Hoops was never to interfere with our beloved TOAD's Bus to New Haven or banging jungle juice parties in Mountain View or even wild Thursday's at Hula Hanks.

Yet in the fall of 2004, the interest in the Bobcats suddenly piqued.

Not because they had lofty expectations and suddenly looked decent on paper. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were a lackluster team fighting for relevance in the Northeast Conference.

Labeling them mediocre would be dishing out a serious compliment. The Bobcats had been projected to make the NEC playoffs the previous season and failed. It was a portent of a downtrodden, dungeon-dwelling team thirsting to rise up.

Yet any ardent QU sports fan and follower of the game at the time will forever cherish the experience of this '04-05 season.

I know, I know...What about a dreadful team, which competed in a J.V. sized gym before pin drop quiet crowds, could have any appeal?

How could you possibly even think about over-glorifying a team predicated on a boring motion offense, seemingly incapable of putting over 100 people in the stands during an in-conference rivalry game?

They possessed one of the grittiest, most cerebral scoring guards in 5-foot-10 Rob Monroe, then a senior. Vastly underrated and under-recruited out of prospect-rich D.C., Monroe was the team's and one of the country's most prolific scorers.

He dropped 39 points on Mount St. Mary's on 12 shot attempts in one of the most efficient, buckets-in-a-hurry performances in NCAA history. He erupted for 44 points against Longwood.

 He hung 32 points during the home-opening win against Cornell, which at the time was shaping into the class of the Ivy League behind UPENN.

Yet beyond his scoring exploits and ability to turn an otherwise boring game into a one-man gunning show, Monroe was by leaps and bounds the conference's best player.

 Every player on Joe DeSantis'(who was fired two seasons later but remains one of the program's best recruiters) roster was a beneficiary of Monroe's presence.

There was 6-foot-9 center C.J. Vick, who had the freedom to roam the paint and pluck down and finish Monroe's high lob passes. When teams ramped up the pressure on Monroe--applying intensified double teams--Vick would find seams around the rim. He'd get loose and with one dribble attack the rim, racking up points on put-backs and point blank finishes as well.

Learning to feed off the quiet confidence of Monroe, an introvert whose stud status finally made him a little more outgoing, Vick thrived. He became an electric player, the key to fortifying a resplendent inside-outside tandem and little-known Quinnipiac.

Christian Burns, a hulking 6-foot-7 forward known for hustle points but very uninvolved offensively, became more adept around the basket and opened up a dependable mid-range game. Again, Monroe's ability to pick apart a defense and fight through all the spiked-up pressure helped feed the post.

Craig Benson, a sharpshooting 6-foot-3 homegrown guard out of hometown Hamden High School, became an extremely vital supplementary piece and knockdown shooter. Kevin Jolley, another D.C. native who was molded into a significant glue guy, became another big time presence inside. Suddenly, this once-laughing stock team who everyone had pigeonholed as losers looked the part of a contender.

And Monroe? He chased school history, simultaneously guiding a young and inexperienced tem through the stretch run of the '04-05 campaign.

Monroe's flair for late-game jabs helped solidify him as one of the top unheralded guards in the country. Monroe poured in 32 points in the aforementioned Cornell game (coached by former Boston College head man and current NBA consultant Steve Donahoe), but it was his assist to Dale Meinbresse for a corner 3-pointer that was the ultimate game-altering moment. When doubled, he was able to find Meinbresse and fellow country boy/Indiana-bred Van Crafton for corner 3-pointers.

Monroe's freshman year, he offered immediate contributions, pumping life into a stagnant program. The Bobcats were a lowly Division-I team only a few years removed from the Division-II level. They were most known in the state as the squad that UConn drubbed in the opener.

Quinnipiac was once so obscure, even on their own campus, they used the aerobics room as a locker room.  Monroe helped change the culture, scoring 16 of his 20 points in the second half en route to a 75-72 semifinal win against UMBC. Games against Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut, in-state conference foes, always held a little extra weight and Monroe's scoring engine was felt throughout.

By the time he was a senior, Monroe averaged 22.7 points, numbers that vaulted him into the nation's upper echelon (fourth overall, 1st in the NEC). Monroe also dealt out 6.5 assists, cracking the nation's top-10 in that category as well.

So here we are, a struggling team chasing a post-season berth in one of the nation's least competitive conferences. Yet the Bobcats boasted one of few guards in the country to lead in both of these categories. Even future NBAers such as Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Hilton Armstrong, and Rudy Gay (then a freshman) who were 40 minutes up the road, did not author this type of double duty production.

How is it, that Monroe's jersey is not retired at the TD Banknorth Arena, a sprawling 3,500-seat facility?

How are there no relic-like reminders of Monroe's prosperity, which helped build up a once-putrid program? Whether it was myriad televised games during his memorable senior season, a number of 30+ games, and a level of star power capable of luring in recruits, Monroe helped better the program to where it is today in the MAAC.

It has been long enough. Monroe's jersey should have been retired, say...yesterday.

Don't argue with history. Retire the jersey.