Monmouth's royal blue-and-white uniforms may look more like Villanova's gear than the lighter shade of blue popular in Chapel Hill, but that's just about the only element of this Northeast Conference program that hasn't taken on a North Carolina flavor.
The trend started in April when Monmouth replaced former coach Dave Calloway with King Rice, a North Carolina point guard from 1987-91 who worked most recently as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. Rice soon hired former Tar Heels teammates Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese as assistants. Now these three are ready to pass down what they learned from Dean Smith two decades ago.
"Those years being around him and the things he taught us, that never leaves you," Rice said.
Rice, 42, hadn't finished his playing career when he realized he eventually wanted to coach. As he noticed NBA scouts gravitating toward his North Carolina teammates while ignoring him, he realized that day would come sooner than he'd expected.
So he made the most of his time playing for one of the game's coaching legends.
Smith often held individual meetings with the point guards. Rice compared those sessions to the film-room chats a football coach might have with his starting quarterback. They'd go over scouting reports and discuss how to attack a particular opponent.
Once the game started, Smith would show the trust he had in hs players.
"He'd often let his point guards make the calls," said Rice, whose new team will face his alma mater on New Year's Day in Chapel Hill. "In a dead-ball situation, he'd make the calls, but if you were coming down the floor, you had the responsibility of making the calls.
"Coach might say, 'Get J.R. [Reid] a layup.' I'd have to know which plays to run to get J.R. a layup. I knew all five guys' responsibilities on each play. That helps you to be a coach."
Rice was the starting point guard for the Tar Heels' 1991 Final Four team that also included Phelps and Reese. Two years later, Phelps and Reese started on North Carolina's 1993 national championship team.
Phelps and Reese aren't surprised their former teammate is now a Division I coach. Rice's experiences at Chapel Hill made him a natural coaching candidate.
Monmouth coach King Rice's new staff includes Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese, who played with Rice at North Carolina. Here's a look at their year-by-year statistics at North Carolina.
"He was a point guard under Coach Smith, and that's a big task in itself," Reese said. "There's so much information you must have. You're that sponge - you get all that information from him - and it's hard not to become a good coach.
"And he's great with people. He's a good communicator, a well-spoken person. He's really trustworthy. He's a really good friend of mine. I could go on and on.''
Although he remains relatively young, Rice already has two decades of coaching experience. Rice hadn't even celebrated his 24th birthday when he began his coaching career, as an assistant on Jerry Green's staff at Oregon. He later worked for Kevin Stallings at Illinois State and Tim Welsh at Providence. Rice served as the coach of the Bahamian National Team from 2001-04 before rejoining Stallings the past five seasons as a Vanderbilt assistant.
"King Rice is a great man," said Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins, whose team will play host to Monmouth on Nov. 25. "I can't say enough about him. He helped recruit me and was always there for me whenever I had problems on and off the court.
"He has a great energy, the greatest spirit. Everything about him is just great. There are no negatives about him at all. He'll be a great coach, no doubt."
Rice takes over a Monmouth program that has fallen upon hard times in the past five years. Monmouth posted six consecutive winning seasons from 2000-01 to 2005-06 and earned three NCAA tournament bids during that stretch, but the Hawks haven't posted a winning record since.
Monmouth's 9-21 mark last season marked the third time in the past four years that the Hawks have lost 20 games. The lone exception was a 12-19 finish in 2009-10. But the Hawks' recent lack of success hasn't tempered Rice's enthusiasm.
"We're going to be very up-tempo," he said. "We definitely are going to push the ball. We're going to play a fun and exciting style of basketball. We're going to really push it on offense, but I'm a Carolina guy, so we're going to take good shots. We're going to run. We're going to be in great shape, and we're going to run as much as these kids can run."
Rice began this rebuilding project by turning to his old friends. Phelps was Fordham's video coordinator last season after playing pro basketball overseas for 12 years. Reese had worked as an assistant at Wingate and High Point after also playing pro basketball internationally.
"I'm a Carolina guy and I have Carolina guys [on my staff], there's no mistaking that," Rice said. "But I wouldn't just hire a person because they went to North Carolina."
Rice believes the local ties of his former teammates will help him develop recruiting connections in the Northeast. Monmouth is in West Long Branch, N.J., about an hour from New York and Philadelphia. Phelps grew up in Queens and helped Christ the King High win a state championship. Reese went to high school in the Bronx. Earlier this year, the New York Post included Phelps and Reese on a list of the top 25 New York City high school players of the past 25 years. Phelps, Reese and Rice all are former McDonald's All-Americans.
Seeking a turnaround
Monmouth earned three NCAA tournament bids and posted six consecutive winning seasons from 2000-01 to 2005-06, but the Hawks have fallen upon hard times. Here's a look at Monmouth's annual overall and Northeast Conference record since 2000-01. NCAA tournament appearances are in bold.
"Derrick and Brian were national champions," said Rice, who grew up in Binghamton, N.Y. "I made a Final Four. We have five Final Fours on the staff. It gives me credibility with kids and parents in this area."
This staff's Carolina connection also could help Monmouth with recruits from outside the Northeast. Most of today's top high school players probably never have heard of Rice, Reese or Phelps. But those three names still might carry some weight with a recruit's parents or coaches.
"That's a staff that can recruit anywhere," Rice said. "That's a staff that has name recognition and credibility because they've done it on the court."
Rice had maintained contact with his former teammates long after they had left Chapel Hill. Their friendship helped them establish an immediate rapport as colleagues. What they lack in experience, they make up for in chemistry.
"We're so used to each other," said Phelps, who remains North Carolina's career leader in steals with 247. "We've been around each other so much, we know how to react and respond to each other in any type of circumstance."
Reese said Rice has known he and Phelps "ever since [Phelps and Reese] came on campus in 1990. He knows what type of people we are. That's just the way it is with the Carolina family. It's hard to put your finger on it, but it's comforting."
That comfort factor helped Rice hire Phelps and Reese. But it's not the only reason. Rice believes the three of them can help make Monmouth a winner again by offering some of the same lessons they learned in their own college careers. Phelps and Reese have similar faith in Rice.
"Once you grow up in the program with Coach Smith, any point guard who comes out of there could be a great coach one day," Phelps said. "It's just how Coach Smith develops his point guards to be coaches on the floor. You just try to take that to the next level. You try to think just like Coach Smith."
Rice looks forward to watching his own point guards develop in a similar manner.