That he has to play them first, well, King Rice isn’t overjoyed about that.
But the Monmouth men’s basketball head coach is a self-described “league guy,” who wants “the MAAC to be a really respected mid-major league.”
And, for this 2020-21 season, there are few duos from the mid-major ranks as respected as Siena senior Manny Camper and junior Jalen Pickett.
So is Rice eager to coach against them as they, finally, make their much-delayed 2020-21 debut Sunday at Alumni Recreation Center?
But the Binghamton native, who starred at North Carolina as a college player, said Thursday in a phone interview that the MAAC needs the Saints on the court.
“I think it hurts our league [that Siena hasn’t played yet] because our league needs Jalen playing,” Rice said.. “Our league needs Manny Camper playing basketball.”
Both Camper and Pickett were All-MAAC first-team selections last season, and Pickett was named the MAAC Player of the Year. Pickett averaged 15.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and six assists per game, while Camper averaged 13.7 points and 10.4 rebounds.
Camper and Pickett were preseason first-team picks this season, too, and Pickett was the preseason player of the year.
If Pickett doesn’t repeat as MAAC Player of the Year?
That would be a stunner . . . or it might just mean that Camper secured the honor.
“They’re two of the best basketball players in our league,” said Rice, whose team is 3-2 overall and 3-1 in MAAC play.
Rice added: “And I got to play them in their first game.”
Camper, Pickett and the rest of the Saints were selected as MAAC preseason favorites following a 2019-20 season that saw them conclude their season on a 10-game winning streak at the point when the college basketball season was canceled due to concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Saints, though, haven’t played since March and are one of two “active” programs — meaning they were trying to play games in November and December — that haven’t played a game yet this season because pandemic-related pauses keep pushing back their start date. Siena’s most-recent pause of full in-person team activities went through Wednesday night, leaving the Saints on track to host Monmouth Sunday after restarting practice on Thursday.
“These guys, I know, are excited to get on the court,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said Thursday during a teleconference with reporters. “I think they’ve been working hard, and our optimism today will determine our level of success tomorrow.”
Rice has regularly been effusive in his praise for Pickett, who was an All-MAAC first-team selection. He said, though, that he made special mention to his Monmouth players last season when Camper got off to such a strong start during his breakout junior campaign.
“Because he doesn’t care about scoring,” Rice said of Camper. “All he cares about is his team winning, and making an impact in the game.”
While Siena faces its own issues related not to playing any games yet this season ahead of Sunday’s matchup, Rice said that he’d prefer to be playing the Saints “after they already had played some games, so we had a feel for what we’re going to see.”
But, truthfully, Rice knows what his top concerns are ahead of Sunday’s and Monday’s games without needing to review any game footage.
“When you have those two vets like they have [in Camper and Pickett], you know they’re going to be good,” Rice said.