Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Senior Night: Moussa Kone


Moussa Kone was perfectly positioned to transfer from Hofstra following his sophomore season in 2012-13, a campaign in which the Flying Dutchmen plumbed the lowest depths in school history on and off the court before head coach Mo Cassara and the assistants who recruited Kone were fired.

Kone could have surveyed the landscape, found a program that wasn’t staring at a complete rebuild, used his redshirt season to refine a still-maturing game and emerged as a key force down low for someone in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

But the only time Kone thinks about transferring from Hofstra is when others ask him why he didn’t.

“I decided to stay and recognize that the coaching staff is one thing that I loved, but the Hofstra community is another thing that I love,” Kone said Monday, two days before his final regular season home game at Hofstra Arena. “That’s what I’ve really enjoyed about the whole situation. I just realized that this is the best place for me to stay.”

Kone was further emboldened after his first meeting with Joe Mihalich, the famous (or infamous) one in which the new coach gathered what was left of the 2012-13 team in a room in the basement of the University Club shortly before his introductory press conference on Apr. 10.

“He wanted me to realize that he wanted me to be a leader on and off the court,” Kone said. “That’s one thing that built my confidence up. I wanted to make him a happy coach, as far as making sure everything was correct, as far as being a good teammate on the floor, off the floor, encouraging my teammates and being energetic.”

Winning and retaining Mihalich’s approval off the court was no problem for Kone, whose character and gentle demeanor immediately impressed athletic department staffers upon his arrival in the fall of 2011. Kone evoked memories of Charles Jenkins by immersing himself in student activities—he is a member of the Student-Athlete Advocacy Committee—and becoming a staple at sporting events on campus.

Meeting Mihalich’s standards on the court was a bit more challenging—particularly handling the adjustment from Cassara, who relied on positive reinforcement to try and keep the undermanned Dutchmen afloat while they went 17-47 during Kone’s first two seasons, to the demanding and rarely satisfied Mihalich.

Kone has come back from a knee injury suffered in the season opener against Jacksonville to average 8.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in 16 CAA games for the Dutchmen, whose nine league wins are three fewer than Kone enjoyed in his first three seasons.

But winning and displaying consistent improvement—Kone averaged 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game over his first three years—is often not enough for Mihalich.

“Sometimes he does look at me with a puzzled look, as if to say ‘Why do you want more? We’re doing pretty good right now.’ And he’s not used to that,” Mihalich said. “Like I said to Jeff Hathaway: This is how I want to be. We have 18 wins, knocking on the door of 20 wins, and we’re not happy.

“But that’s how you want to be. That’s the biggest adjustment for him, is that realization—he’s still learning that that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Mihalich has spent plenty of time this month praise Kone instead of pushing him. Kone has scored in double digits three times in six February games and twice came within a rebound of a double-double.

Kone had the best game of his career on Feb. 15, when he scored 23 points—on 10-of-10 shooting from the field—and pulled down nine rebounds in an 81-57 rout of Drexel.

On the bus afterward, Mihalich informed Kone that he was just the seventh player in CAA history to make at least 10 field goal attempts without a miss in a single game. Among the first six: Hall of Famer David Robinson.

“In the beginning of the game, if they get me going with a couple dump-off passes and I get a couple dunks in and I get three or four layups and I’m feeling good about myself, then they’ll continue to feed me,” Kone said. “And that’s basically what happened against Drexel. They just kept feeding off me and I was just getting great looks and I just couldn’t miss, I guess.”

The February surge is nothing new for Kone: Of the 21 times he has scored at least 10 points in a game for Hofstra, eight have come in February including both his 20-point efforts. That’s a good trend for a team that will have a legitimate chance at advancing deep into the CAA Tournament for the first time in Kone’s career.

While Kone is thinking about the remaining games he has to play, he’s also begun to reflect upon the circuitous path he traveled at Hofstra and how the struggles of his first two seasons are impacting the payoff he’s enjoying as a senior.

“I had to mature from the first two years and being on a team where a lot of people probably wouldn’t have stuck it out,” Kone said. “But I was mature enough to be patient and just stay around, stick it out, just be confident in the team and in the organization. The athletic director down to the coaches and managers that we have on the team. I just respect them to the fullest.

“I just wanted to come out here and stick it out. Looking back on it, I just feel like it was a great decision that I (made). I wanted to come in here and finish up and it’s turned out pretty well for me.”

And as demanding as he could be of Kone, Mihalich will always have a soft spot for the lone Cassara-era player to complete his eligibility under the new coaching staff.

“The negative things that happened, the losing, all that stuff, and he’s really the only one that stuck around,” Mihalich said. “And now he’s here and not only is the culture different, but he’s a big part of why it is. So it’s remarkable that he’s been able to do that.”

Senior Night: Dion Nesmith


Six years, three schools and almost two degrees later, Dion Nesmith finally gets his Senior Night tonight, when the graduate senior guard will be honored prior to the Flying Dutchmen’s regular season home finale against the College of Charleston.

So what took so long? Thank the NCAA. For more reasons than one.

Nesmith originally went to Northeastern in the fall of 2009 to play football. He was redshirted as a freshman, and ended up never playing a down for the Huskies because the school dropped the program two days after the conclusion of the 2009 season.

With the understanding that he couldn’t play basketball at Northeastern, and the increasing realization he didn’t want to risk playing football for another Division I-AA program that might shutter its doors, Nesmith decided to transfer some place where he could play basketball as a true sophomore during the 2010-11 season.

Nesmith, a native of Union, N.J., went home to Monmouth. But the ever-byzantine NCAA never approved his request to play immediately, which meant he spent his sophomore year the same way he spent his freshman year: On the bench.

“The rule was if the program gets dropped, you can go right away and play that same sport again,” Nesmith said Monday afternoon. “But since I chose to play basketball, I had to sit out.”

The ruling frustrated Nesmith, but it also emboldened him.

“At the end of the day, I wanted to play more than they were going to stop me,” Nesmith said. “So there was no quit in me. I was going to play one day. I knew it was going to happen. I just had to wait my turn.”

The waiting was worth it, especially for Hofstra. Nesmith played his junior and senior seasons at Monmouth, for whom he averaged 8.4 points while starting 60 of 63 games.

After graduating with a degree in finance in the spring of 2013, Nesmith decided to cash in on his opportunity to play an extra year by transferring to Hofstra, which not only offered a master’s degree in business analytics but an immediate chance to play as many minutes as he could handle.

Nesmith was named to the all-CAA third team last year, when he averaged 13.3 points per game as the Dutchmen’s starting point guard. But his biggest victory occurred early in the season, when Hofstra applied for and received a sixth year of eligibility for Nesmith.

The NCAA helping out the little guy, and Hofstra. What were the odds?

“I never really thought it could happen, the sixth year,” Joe Mihalich said. “And then just all of a sudden one day somebody said ‘Hey you know what? This could happen.’ And it was like, wow, really? It was one of those expect the worst, hope for the best (situations). I just expected him to not be eligible and he was. So it was great.”

The extra season began with Nesmith coming off the bench thanks to the arrival of Juan’ya Green, Ameen Tanksley and Brian Bernardi, all of whom sat out last season as transfers. His post-post graduate season is ending with Nesmith back in the starting lineup and cementing himself as one of the best players on the team.

Nesmith has played at least 30 minutes 15 times this season, including in six of the last seven games, a stretch in which he is averaging 12.3 points while shooting 40 percent (14-of-35) from 3-point land.

“I never stopped working, never stopped pushing,” Nesmith said, “And to see it finally start to pay off—I wish it would have paid off the other five years, too, but I can’t do anything about it now.”

Nesmith, who drained the dramatic game-winning shot ju9st before the buzzer to beat Stony Brook in the battle for Long Island on Nov. 21, was also the player Mihalich entrusted with the ball in the final seconds Sunday. With the Dutchmen down two against William & Mary, Nesmith dribbled up the left side of the court before colliding with Terry Tarpey and uncorking an errant shot as time expired in an 80-78 loss.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Mihalich said. “We didn’t look at him and say ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to be all-conference, he’s going to play 35 minutes a game and he’s going to be out best guard.’ We didn’t do that. We just knew he could be a piece of the puzzle and he could really help us.

“And then he turned out to be pretty good and I thin he just kept getting better. Speaks to his character. He is a high-character, total package guy.”

Mihalich likes to say that everyone will someday be working for Nesmith, who hopes to put his analytics degree to use in the sports field.

“He’ll end up being a CEO somewhere,” Mihalich said. “He’s going to be great at it.”

But before he occupies the corner office, Nesmith has a few more games to play—a few more opportunities to remind the powers that be that they might have delayed his dream of playing college basketball, but they couldn’t stop him from achieving it.

“I was definitely surprised that it worked out and happy that it worked out, because I got another year to play basketball and got another year to help me finish my degree,” Nesmith said. “It has just been tremendous, with the ups and downs at the beginning and to see stuff finally go my way towards the end. It’s a blessing.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Of parity with (long-ago) precedent, and one-hit wonders



Extreme parity in a college basketball conference is a lot like extreme weather. An extended bone-chilling cold snap—or sweaty heat wave—is not unprecedented, even though it is rare enough to warrant both hyperbolic reaction and the belief it’s never happened before.

So it’s fair for me, and anyone else my age or even a little bit older, to believe the inclusion of the Flying Dutchmen in a frantic five-way race for the CAA men’s basketball regular season title has never happened before.

A gritty 87-82 win over Towson Wednesday night improved the Dutchmen to 9-6 in CAA play and, coupled with complete chaos throughout the rest of the league pulled them within one game of the four teams tied for first place: William & Mary, Northeastern, UNC Wilmington and James Madison. The Dutchmen will try to loosen that logjam while remaining a game out of first today, when they host William & Mary.

It is not unprecedented for Hofstra to be involved in such a free-for-all. But February 1990 was a long time ago.

I was a high school junior, spending most of my time “running” indoor track. I had neither a blog nor a Twitter account, but if I did, both would have been dubbed “Defiantly Dateless.” I was just following the advice of Jane Child, whose lone hit, “Don’t Wanna Fall In Love,” was climbing the charts to no. 2 and pouring out of speakers in cars driven by teenagers yet owned by their parents.

And 125 miles southwest of my hometown, the men’s basketball program for a school I hadn’t even heard of yet was involved in a wild five-way race for the regular season championship in a conference I may or may not have invented in my mind.

There were subtle differences in the then vs. now comparison: With three games remaining in the 1989-90 East Coast Conference season, there were four teams tied for second, and chasing a lone first-place team, instead of vice versa. The ECC had just eight teams and played only 14 regular season games, instead of the 10-team, 18-game alignment possessed by the CAA.

But like now, Hofstra was doing the chasing. The second team of Butch van Breda Kolff’s second tenure was among the quartet of 6-5 teams chasing Lehigh. Really. This happened.

1989-90 ECC standings through 11 games
Lehigh 7-4
HOFSTRA 6-5
Towson State 6-5
Delaware 6-5
Lafayette 6-5
Drexel 5-6
Rider 5-6
Bucknell 4-7

Four CAA schools, three Patriot schools and a MAAC school walk into a bar…

Technically, the ECC in 1989-90 was even wilder than the CAA is now. Without looking at the remaining schedules for every team—what do you think I am, crazy?—it appears as if all eight schools still had a shot at a share of the regular season title while seven were in the running to win it outright.

But what we have now is pretty spectacular. Every November and December, we opine that the current season is wildly unpredictable and anyone can win. But it never happens that way. Someone or someones—usually a UNC Wilmington, a VCU, an Old Dominion or a George Mason—break away from the pack and make the tournament a miracle-or-bust affair for the rest of us.

Since Hofstra joined the North Atlantic Conference in 1994, only four times—in 1997-98, 1998-99, 2005-06 and 2008-09—have the top four teams in the Dutchmen’s conference finished a season separated by two games or less.

The closest race the Dutchmen have been a part of took place during the 1997-98 season, when 12-6 Delaware and Boston University finished a game ahead of Hofstra, Hartford and Vermont and two ahead.

But Delaware had a two-game lead entering the 15th game of the ’97-98 season. And in each of the other three close race seasons, first and fourth place were already separated by at least two games with three league games to go.

1997-98 America East standings through 15 games
1.) Delaware 11-4
2.) HOFSTRA 9-6
2.) Boston U. 9-6
2.) Vermont 9-6
5.) Hartford 8-7
6.) Drexel 7-8

1998-99 America East standings through 15 games
1.) Drexel 13-2
2.) Delaware 12-3
3.) HOFSTRA 11-4
3.) Maine 11-4

2005-06 CAA standings through 15 games
1.) George Mason 13-2
2.) UNCW 12-3
3.) HOFSTRA 11-4
3.) Old Dominion 11-4

2006-07 CAA standings through 15 games
1.) VCU 13-2
2.) HOFSTRA 12-3
2.) Old Dominion 12-3
4.) Drexel 11-4

2008-09 CAA standings through 15 games
1.) VCU 11-4
1.) Northeastern 11-4
3.) George Mason 10-5
4.) Old Dominion 9-6

If we can’t have the best-case scenario (Hofstra in first place with three games to play, which has not happened in the CAA era) then this (the Dutchmen one game back with three to go for just the second time in the CAA) is a pretty good alternative.

The stars have aligned—or, more accurately, realigned thanks to the departures of the perpetually excellent VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason—and created a chaotic race which generates in us the type of fresh-faced, wide-eyed, anything goes optimism that isn’t just the loyal Hofstra faithful trying to delude itself into believing the impossible. Isn’t it awesome, especially given how frustrated we were just a couple weeks ago?

It is easy, as with a spell of bad weather, to say this is the new normal. The state of the CAA would seem to present plenty of opportunities for topsy-turvy races moving forward. But let’s remember that the ECC was on its way to being dismantled in 1990, and that the back-to-back close races in the America East in the late ‘90s were followed by the CAA poaching the best of the America East.

So what we have today—the Dutchmen playing a first-place team with a chance to remain a game out of first and keep alive their hopes of finishing first—is a rare gift. It might not take 25 years to experience it again, but you’d better cherish it anyway, just in case this parity turns out to be Jane Child.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An idiot's dream (part one?)



Because sports is life, the great unexpected joy of the Flying Dutchmen throttling Drexel for the second time this season Sunday afternoon (sorry, Crain) was immediately followed by abject disappointment: Despite my previous hopes and beliefs, the win by the Dutchmen didn’t make a six-way tie for first place AT 12-6 in the CAA possible.

Though there are six teams with between four and six losses, only five can finish 12-6 because James Madison, which is 9-5, plays the 8-6 Dutchmen and Drexel. WHY GOD WHY CAN’T WE HAVE NICE THINGS?

However, life has taught me to bounce back from soul-crushing misery, I promptly got back on the horse #Cliche and wasted little time figuring out THERE COULD STILL BE A SIX-WAY TIE AT 11-7! VICTORY!

And because I’m not quite right in the head—seriously, I love nothing more than coming up with the playoff tiebreakers for our fantasy football league every December—I also devised a potential five-way tie for first place at 12-6, as well as a four-way tie for first at 12-6. All machinations involve Hofstra finishing 12-6. Hey, don’t like it, start your own sporadically updated blog.

Alas, all these machinations also involve Hofstra not winning the no. 1 seed. That head-to-head sweep at the hands of Northeastern is going to be tough to overcome.

Without further ado, here are the remaining schedules for the top six teams, as well as the three scenarios I figured out. Please read this soon, as merely posting it ensures Hofstra will lose tonight and render all of these implausible scenarios downright impossible. (And if the Dutchmen beat Towson, tune back in for scenarios in which I devise a way for Hofstra to finish with the no. 1 seed)

1.) William & Mary 10-4 (@NU, @HU, Tow, Drex, .536 winning %)
2.) UNC Wilmington 10-4 (@UDee, @Tow, JMU, @Elon, .411 winning %)
3.) Northeastern 9-5 (W&M, Drex, @Elon, @CofC, .411 winning %)
4.) James Madison 9-5 (Drex, CofC, @UNCW, Hof, .500 winning %)
5.) Hofstra 8-6 (@Tow, W&M, CofC, @JMU, .464 winning %)
6.) Drexel 8-6 (@JMU, @NU, UDee, @W&M, .607 winning %)

 SIX-WAY TIE AT 11-7
1.) William & Mary (1-3 in last four, Ls to NU, HU & Drex)
2.) Northeastern (2-2 in last four, Ls to Elon & CofC)
3.) Hofstra (3-1 in last four, L to JMU) 4-2
4.) UNCW (1-3 in last four, Ls to UDee, JMU & Elon) 3-3
4.) Drexel (3-1 in last four, L to UDee) 2-4
5.) James Madison (2-2 in last four, L to Drex & UNCW) 2-4

William & Mary is the no. 1 seed by virtue of its 7-3 record against the other five 11-7 teams. Northeastern is the no. 2 seed by virtue of its 6-4 record against the 11-7 teams. The remaining four teams, in this scenario, are all 5-5 against the other five 11-7 teams, but Hofstra is the no. 3 seed by virtue of going 4-2 against Drexel, UNCW and James Madison. UNCW is no. 4 by virtue of going 3-3 against Hofstra, Drexel and James Madison. Drexel and James Madison each would go be 2-4 against the other three 11-7 teams, but Drexel would be the no. 5 seed because in this scenario the Dragons would go 1-1 against William & Mary while James Madison has gone 0-2.

FIVE-WAY TIE AT 12-6
1.) William & Mary (2-2 in last four, Ls to NU & HU)
2.) Northeastern (3-1 in last four, L to Elon)
3.) UNCW (2-2 in last four, Ls to JMU & UDee)
4.) Hofstra (4-0 in last four)
5.) James Madison (3-1 in last four, L to HU)

This would be the easiest one to figure out. William & Mary is the no. 1 seed by virtue of its 6-2 record against the other four 12-6 teams. Northeastern is no. 2 by virtue of its 5-3 record. UNCW is no. 3 by virtue of its 4-4 record. Hofstra is no. 4 by virtue of its 3-5 record. James Madison is no. 5 by virtue of its 2-6 record.

FOUR-WAY TIE AT 12-6
1.) William & Mary 
2.) Hofstra
3.) UNCW
4.) Drexel

Ohhhh Hofstra came so close to winning the no. 1 seed here. In this four-way tie scenario, Hofstra and William & Mary would emerge with 4-2 records against the other three 12-6 teams, while Drexel and UNCW would be 2-4 against the other 12-6 squads. However, UNCW would draw the no. 3 seed by virtue of its sweep of Drexel, and William & Mary would then get the no. 1 seed because it swept UNCW while the Dutchmen split with the Seahawks. I think? 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Can’t afford to let it pass



Can't go with Extreme the night of Billy Joel-Extreme.

Tonight is the biggest February home basketball game the Flying Dutchmen have played in at least six years and two days, which says more for the recently downtrodden state of the Hofstra program and the disheveled nature of the CAA circa 2014-15 than it does the scope of the game.

Barone Bowl XIII isn’t even the big deal that the CAA thought it might be a few months ago, when it placed Hofstra-Northeastern on a Thursday night so that it could air on NBC Sports Network. Northeastern was picked to finish first in the preseason poll and the Dutchmen were tabbed third, but tonight’s stakes are decidedly less imposing: The Huskies are just trying to move into a two-way tie for second place with UNC Wilmington, which was picked to finish last in the preseason poll, while the Dutchmen are trying to create a four-way tie for third.

This would be a bit more compelling if there were first-round byes in the CAA Tournament at stake, as was the case when the Dutchmen put together an impressive collective effort in beating Old Dominion on Feb. 10, 2009.

But the league has dwindled from 12 teams to 10, which means the top six teams get byes instead of just the top four. Even with a loss tonight, the Dutchmen would be 7-6 and two games up on seventh-place Delaware with the tiebreaker (head-to-head sweep) in hand and three games ahead of eighth-place Towson, albeit with a head-to-head loss to the Tigers to overcome.

But let’s not look CAA contention and a nationally televised game in the mouth. I mean, our lords and saviors Cablevision didn’t even carry ESPNU in February 2009, which meant you had to be at Hofstra to actually see the game. Our lords and saviors have blessed us with NBC Sports Network, so it feels like we’re ACTUALLY gonna be on TV tonight. Which is good, since I’ll be across the street at the Coliseum and will have to watch it on tape delay (odds nobody spoils it for me?).

Plus, if it’s a big enough game for Charles Jenkins and Matt Janning to engage in a Twitter avatar bet, isn’t it big enough for us?


Potential statement games come in all shapes and sizes, and this is one for both teams, even if it is somewhat oblong and shrunken. The Dutchmen need a win tonight—not a well-played loss, a win—in order to prove last week’s bounce back from the most embarrassing losing streak of the Defiantly Dutch era was legitimate and not a product of beating Delaware and ninth-place Elon.

“This is our second game in February and second game that turned out the way we like it to,” Joe Mihalich said following Saturday’s 80-69 win over Elon. “So it’s a good time to be feeling good about yourself.

“They got it back, they found themselves. We kind of lost our way, but I think we found our way back.”

That remains to be seen, even if there is a lot to be said for winning the games you should win during a season in which first-place William & Mary’s three league losses have come against Delaware, Elon and last-place Charleston. Ask Northeastern, which is trying to reassert itself after Saturday’s stunning home loss to Delaware.

But in order to make a run in Baltimore, the Dutchmen will have to beat the better teams, too. Hofstra is 2-4 against the six CAA squads with winning league records, and one of those wins came against Drexel before the Dragons navigated their way out of the iceberg and became the hottest team on the planet.

It’ll be a lot easier to believe in the possibility of a magical March if the Dutchmen can beat Northeastern, which shot about 500,000% in a 91-83 win in Boston on Jan. 14. The awful defense that began cropping up against the Huskies and was a hallmark of the Dutchmen’s recent skid was better against Delaware and Elon, but still nowhere near good enough to win three games in three days. The Blue Hens and Phoenix each averaged more than 0.90 points per possession, which is the highest rate surrendered by the Dutchmen in a league win this season.

Perhaps a home crowd emboldened by free white T-shirts will generate some momentum for the Dutchmen, allow them to come out tonight like the 2008-09 team did against Old Dominion and never let up after throwing the first punch (maybe with Malik Nichols playing the role of Darren Townes?).

It is more likely, though, that an equally desperate Northeastern squad is going to respond with a flurry of its own, probably by pouring the ball inside with its three-headed monster of Quincy Ford, David Walker and Scott Eatherton. In that case, The Dutchmen will need to prove the inconsistent resiliency of January was the aberration, and not the norm, and they’ll largely need to do so by relying on strong and efficient games on both ends of the floor from big men Moussa Kone and Rokas Gustys.

Kone and Gustys seem to begin most games with two fouls apiece, but they were very good on Saturday against Elon, when the duo combined for 16 points (on 8-of-11 shooting), 11 rebounds and three blocks. Throw some Ameen Tanksley at power forward in there and the Dutchmen have a shot at minimizing Northeastern’s inside game.

“Truth be told, we probably don’t get that ball to Moussa enough down there and (to) Rokas enough down there,” Mihalich said Saturday. “We probably don’t post up Ameen enough down there. We’re always trying to think of ways to do some better things. I feel like there’s still a lot of things we can do better.”

The Dutchmen need to keep doing better things tonight, especially given the road trip that awaits. After visiting Drexel on Sunday, the Dutchmen head for a lousy matchup Wednesday at Towson. A loss tonight and it’s not inconceivable Hofstra is under .500 and actually fighting to avoid the Friday play-in games when it returns home to host William & Mary on Feb. 22.

But a win tonight and the long-shot regular season championship hopes stay alive, as does the possibility of gaining some revenge on William & Mary for putting up triple digits in Williamsburg during the January funk.

“We had 21 days of basketball that wasn’t great—not three months, 21 days,” Mihalich said. “We were pretty good 21 days ago, I think everybody took a deep breath, got our composure back, we got our poise back and we got that bounce in our step back.”

Tonight we find out if it’s legitimate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

I don’t like what I see here



Good news: At least I tied this into another Extreme song! (That may be bad news to you)

It doesn’t take a whole lot of prompting to understand sports brings out the worst in us. The Super Bowl was played on Sunday (oh, and there was Hofstra representation, AGAIN, #ThanksStu), and I was one of the approximately four hundred billion Americans who ignored the horrendous impact football has on its combatants—and the complete lack of regard by the NFL and its pathological commissioner for the short- or long-term health of the men who make the league billions every year—in order to overindulge on food and commerce while occasionally paying attention to the action on the field.

Of course, you need not be part of a giant communal experience to realize how screwy sports can turn someone. You can simply, to borrow a phrase used Saturday night by Flying Dutchmen basketball coach Joe Mihalich following the latest embarrassment produced by his team, look in the mirror.

What I saw staring back at me, Saturday night into Sunday into Monday into Tuesday into Wednesday, was a 41-year-old madder than he’s ever been over the fortunes of his alma mater’s men’s basketball team.

I mean, how messed up is that? Who gets that worked up over kids half his age wearing the right laundry bouncing a basketball up and down a 94-foot court?

My Mom, heaven rest her soul, would be so disappointed in her eldest child acting like a child. “It’s just a game,” she said every time I threw a temper tantrum over sports, and of course, she was right every time.

But even if I were to wave her off this time, there would still be no sane, quantifiable reason—none at all—why I should be madder about the Flying Dutchmen basketball team this season than I was about any of the last three teams.

The Flying Dutchmen are 14-9 this season. They went 27-70 the previous three seasons, the losingest three-season run in program history.

Better yet, unlike in 2011-12 or 2012-13, nobody on this team has been suspended by the head coach.

Nobody has been banished from the team without an explanation, only to return for three games before deciding to “leave school,” never to be heard from again until he ended up in the police blotter.

Nobody has disappeared from the team without explanation before the first practice of the season, only to reappear without explanation once the first semester ended, only to graduate and leave following the second semester and land at another school, never to be heard from again until he ended up in the police blotter. Twice.

Most importantly, nobody has been arrested for stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of stuff from classmates, or for possessing weed, or for whatever was found during a traffic stop right behind campus.

This team has, as far as we all know, done what it is supposed to do. Its players have remained out of trouble and remained eligible by managing to balance class work with practice, competition and travel. Performing this juggling act and producing a solid effort every time they take the court is all we should demand or expect out of Hofstra basketball players.

And there is the problem. For the first time since I arrived on campus in the fall of 1993, I am questioning the effort of the men’s basketball team.

Actually, “questioning” is too kind a term. I know what I’m seeing during a stretch of five losses in six games by the Dutchmen that followed a 4-0 start in CAA play, and what I’m not. And so does Joe Mihalich.

“This game honors toughness and the toughest team won the game tonight,” Mihalich said Saturday night following the latest defeat, an 86-72 loss to Towson. “We just got out-toughed.”

It wasn’t the first time.

The Dutchmen have flat-out not tried hard enough during this current skid. Hurried jumpers by ice-cold players. Wide-open lanes for players of all sizes (Four McGlynn? Really?) to drive in for easy layups. Several steps worth of sag providing opponents plenty of room to stop, pop and drop jump shots. Awful—and I mean awful—body language, by everyone—and I mean everyone—on the court and on the sidelines.

Here’s the scary thing: It’s getting worse. The game-costing lulls have gotten longer with each loss, to the point that it is easier to identify when the Dutchmen were giving an honest effort the last two games against William & Mary and Towson than when they weren’t.

Against the Tribe and Tigers, the Dutchmen shot 39.2 percent overall—but 27.2 percent (15-for-55) from 3-point land and 48.6 percent (34-for-70) from inside the arc.

The Tribe and Tigers combined to shoot 61.6 percent against the Dutchmen. Hofstra allowed two opponents to shoot at least 61.6 percent in the preceding 432 games dating back to the start of the 2001-02 season.

Looking for another barometer that stretches back to the start of the second Bush administration? The back-to-back losses to William & Mary and Towson marked the first time the Dutchmen have lost consecutive CAA games by at least 14 points since January 12-14, 2002, when they fell to James Madison and George Mason.

In addition, the Dutchmen had 18 fewer rebounds than Towson. Rebounding margin is to basketball stats what batting average is to baseball stats, but here’s some more evidence backing up a relic: The Dutchmen had one less defensive rebound (11) than Towson had offensive rebounds. And with 9:17 left in the second half, Towson’s John Davis missed two free throws, but teammate Timajh Parker-Rivera grabbed the board and drained a short jumper to give the Tigers their first double-digit lead of the night.

“There was a missed shot, they went and got it,” Mihalich said. “They wanted it more than we wanted it. They were tougher, probably, in every way, shape or form.”

Including mentally. On Saturday night, the Dutchmen alternated between giving Towson easy baskets, surrendering rebounds and complaining about the calls they weren’t getting from the officials, until the final minute, when a technical foul was issued to the bench.

Nobody loves complaining about the refs more than me, but you know what? How about you shut up, play better and get better calls? Try that. There is no game more impacted by human nature than basketball. Officials are going to give the benefit of the doubt on coin toss calls to the team that’s playing better. Not the one that’s playing awful and screaming about it every time up the court.

“We’ve got to change,” Mihalich said. “We’ve got to come up with something.”

Here’s a suggestion (a little late to help tonight, but work with me here): Pop in some DVDs from the last three seasons and check out the effort with which those Dutchmen teams played. They were undermanned and overmatched almost every time out, but they played HARD.

They got punched in the face, symbolically, over and over again, And they almost always responded, if not with victories then with exhausting effort that sometimes left them as beaten as Tex Cobb GOOGLE IT CRAIN but filled us with a pride that superseded the shame we felt following the actions of their ex-teammates.

Of those 70 losses the last three seasons, 29 were by seven points or less or in overtime, including 22 of the Dutchmen’s 43 CAA losses. And now, in a league that is immeasurably worse than it was three years ago and with the most talented Hofstra team since the back-to-back-to-back NIT squads, the Dutchmen are getting beaten by deficits not seen since the program’s first year in the CAA.

Inexcusable. Give me Stevie Mejia, right now. Please.

“It’s the guy in the mirror,” Mihalich said. “It’s not the guy next to you, not the guy behind you. It’s the guy in the mirror. To a person in that room, we’ve got to change.”

So, to be honest, does Mihalich.

Mihalich’s unyieldingly demanding ways left me impressed following the Dutchmen’s most recent win, a wire-to-wire 86-58 drubbing of Drexel in which he spent most of the game acting like the Dutchmen were down 28 instead of up 28. Good, I thought. As much as I am content with a Hofstra team producing a full effort, win or lose, it was nice to have reached the point in the rebuilding process where a coach was an ornery, hard-ass nitpicker during lopsided victories.

But Mihalich, a grinder who is consumed with the game every second of every minute of every hour of everyday, needs to soften his tone and his message and ease up on the accelerator in order to get through to a fragile team.

“We’ve all been through ruts like this,” Mihalich said. “We’ve just got to keep banging our head against the wall and think of whatever it is we can do.”

How about less banging of the head? The Dutchmen aren’t giving him any reason to be positive, or to let up, but the constant negativity is dropping them further into this hole.

Maybe it won’t work. But nobody likes what they’re seeing, on the floor or in the mirror. Better try something, before some of us decide what we see on the floor isn’t worth what we see in the mirror.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Dutchmen, one-time overnight sensations, need to become hip today



So this is what I originally wrote as the first graph of this blog entry last Sunday, and would have appeared as the first graph of this blog if I’d managed to post it Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday:

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: As much as the Flying Dutchmen’s 69-63 loss to James Madison on Saturday sucked—and it sucked more than the suckiest bunch of sucks have ever sucked—it beats the alternative we’ve lived through the last three years.

Good thing I didn’t post it. Because Wednesday night’s 100-78 loss to William & Mary was infinitely suckier than the suckiest bunch of sucks that have ever sucked.

So this is what I originally wrote as the second graph of this blog entry, etc etc:

In a weird, twisted, possibly life-affirming way, watching the Dutchmen do everything wrong to blow a 14-point lead and lose by two possessions was infinitely better than watching them do almost everything right and still lose by a point or two, which happened on a nearly nightly basis during the first three seasons of the post-Charles Jenkins Era.

Wrong again. I could go on, and post every graph I wrote and then amend it, but you get the point. What was initially just a worrisome and maddening hiccup is now a full-fledged embarrassment, a stretch of four losses in five games that causes me to reconsider what I was writing earlier in the week.

Too hyperbolic? I’m usually guilty as charged of that, but I might be understating things considering some of these facts from Wednesday night:

--The Dutchmen never led, trailed by 27 points just 13:38 into the game, trailed 54-34 at the half and ended up surrendering 100 points to a CAA opponent for the first time. The last time they gave up 100 points in a league game was Jan. 6, 1996, when Drexel handed the Dutchmen a 101-71 loss. That was so long ago, the America East was still called the North Atlantic Conference. And I was still in school.

--To lose by 21 when down by 27 13:38 into the game doesn’t look that bad. Except the Dutchmen cut the gap to 11 six minutes into the second half and trailed by 12 with six minutes left. William & Mary then ended the game on a 23-14 run. So there was no way to even spin the loss as “Well, it was bad, but it could have been worse.”

--The Dutchmen gave up their 100th point in the most slapstick way possible. With the full-court press on against the end of the Tribe bench, Rokas Gustys forced a turnover with 33 seconds left. Alas, Ameen Tanksley turned it over four seconds later and Oliver Tot not only hit a fast break layup for the Tribe’s 99th and 100th points but got intentionally fouled by Eliel Gonzalez in the process.

--The Dutchmen allowed William & Mary to shoot 64.8 percent from the field. It was the highest shooting percentage surrendered by the Dutchmen in the CAA era, breaking the record set a whopping two weeks earlier against Northeastern (63.8 percent).

--Guess how many times over the previous three seasons—during which the Dutchmen were almost impossibly undermanned and overmatched—the Dutchmen lost a CAA game by at least 21 points? Three times, and only twice in the regular season, both in 2012-13, when the Dutchmen were at their most impossibly undermanned and overmatched.

So yeah. It was bad.

Following the James Madison loss—in which the Dutchmen blew a 14-point second half lead to fall for the third time in four games following a 4-0 start in CAA play—I had a thesis going that the current skid for the Dutchmen was the basketball equivalent of a first fight with a new girlfriend or boyfriend, the one who healed the wounds administered by the psycho hosebeast from hell—in this case, the 2012-13 season—and made it possible to fall in love again.

And, well, I kinda liked it, so I’m gonna run with it.

My theory was that patience had to be exercised and that at some point adjustments need to be made to the quirks, flaws and imperfections that inevitably crop up between both parties.

Those traits are impossible to see when a relationship begins with a bunch of Coppin States and Jacksonvilles and Central Connecticuts, in which all the shots are falling and all the fun is being had and the passion runs white-hot. There’s a Stony Brook night at the start of any relationship, in which a dance with danger ends in euphoric fashion. The adrenaline of something new carries us through even the occasionally less-than-stellar North Carolina State or South Florida experience.

If there was a point of no return in this emotional investment, it was obliterated during the first two weeks of the new year, when the Dutchmen received a vote in the AP Top 25 courtesy of John Feinstein (whose books amazingly just became a lot more readable to me), were pegged as the CAA’s NCAA Tournament representative in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology (which amazingly just became a lot more tolerable to me) and beat the league’s three southernmost teams on the road—UNC Wilmington, College of Charleston and Elon—in becoming the only CAA team to open 4-0 in conference play.

But no partnership can run in the red forever. At some point, stuff the other one does starts to, quite frankly, drive you nuts.

He drinks a six-pack of Mountain Dew a day, and stacks the cans along the windowsill in his dorm room like some kind of avant garde art project. He reads four newspapers a day, ostensibly for any articles about Hofstra sports, but he rarely clips articles and instead stacks the papers as if trying to start a fire that’ll burn down Vander Poel Hall in five minutes. He isn’t making any money, but spends a lot of cash on compact discs, which fortunately will never go out of style. He really likes hair metal, which went out of style four years ago.

(Hey Michelle give me back the keyboard!)

In this case, we are starting to notice that under second-year coach Joe Mihalich, the Dutchmen’s shoot-their-way-out-of-it approach to offensive slumps makes their current skid possible.

Against William & Mary, Mihalich called one timeout during the disastrous first half—after the Dutchmen fell behind by 27 with 6:17 left, not when a 5-5 tie turned into a 16-5 deficit during a seven-possession stretch in which Hofstra racked up more turnovers (four) than missed shots (three).

Against James Madison, he used only one timeout in the second half—not during the Dukes’ 14-0 run that erased a 12-point lead midway through the half but right after a 3-pointer by Brian Bernardi gave the Dutchmen a 59-58 lead with 5:25 left.

On Jan. 17, the Dutchmen squandered a six-point lead in the final 5:42 of a 79-74 loss to UNC Wilmington. The Dutchmen finished the game by going 1-for-9 from the field in their last 12 possessions. Mihalich used three timeouts in the second half, one in the first 90 seconds after the Seahawks tied the game and two in the final 90 seconds with Hofstra down one point both times.

In their first CAA loss against Northeastern on Jan. 14, the Dutchmen hoisted a remarkable 75 shots in falling, 91-83. That game turned late in the second half, when the Dutchmen went scoreless from the field during seven straight possessions that turned a one-point lead into a nine-point deficit.

Mihalich called four timeouts in the final 8:27—one immediately after Northeastern took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by David Walker and three in the final 79 seconds. The Dutchmen were no closer than seven points at any of the timeouts.

So we know now that Mihalich—whose Niagara teams scored at least 100 points 18 times in his 15 seasons at the school, a stretch in which Hofstra reached 100 points twice—doesn’t like to slow the pace, even when his team is struggling. We know that he treats timeouts like Dean Smith (GOOGLE IT CRAIN).

In addition, the high-octane offense that is so much fun to watch—the Dutchmen are averaging 78.7 points per game this season, the most since the 1977-78 team averaged 81.3 points per game—results in a lot of points being scored the other way, which is magnified when the Dutchmen are struggling to score themselves.

The Dutchmen are allowing an average of 68.6 points per game, a figure exceeded by seven of the previous 13 Hofstra squads. However, the Dutchmen are allowing opposing teams to shoot 44.7 percent, which would be the third-highest figure surrendered by Hofstra since the move to the CAA in 2001. Last year’s team allowed opponents to shoot 45.3 percent while the 2011-12 squad allowed opponents to shoot 45.7 percent.

In mid-major land, a team that scores a lot is probably going to give up a lot. Still, this requires some adjustments, especially for fans used to the sludgy style of Tom Pecora, in which it seemed every game ended up 65-60.

And none of these statistics indicate that Mihalich’s way—and by extension, the new Dutchmen way—is wrong. In fact, there’s ample evidence to suggest it works: Niagara won 265 games, reached two NCAA Tournaments and three NITs in his 15 seasons. There’s a very good chance this relationship works for the long-term.

But it’s not wrong either to have been disappointed by the Northeastern loss, frustrated with the UNC Wilmington loss, downright furious with the James Madison loss and some combination of disappointed, frustrated and furious after the William & Mary loss.

The emotions are heightened by the down nature of the CAA and the sense that, for the first time since the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, Hofstra has a legitimate chance to win the league and advance to the NCAA Tournament. The frustration is fueled by the gift the Dutchmen received on Jan. 21, when a wire-to-wire win over Drexel coupled with Delaware’s upset of William & Mary vaulted the Dutchmen back into a tie for first place,

Three days later, they were in a tie for fourth. Now they’re all alone in fifth, two games behind William & Mary and UNC-Wilmington, the latter of whom has a first-year coach directing the same bunch of players that finished dead last in the CAA last year.

History is, of course, littered with teams that recovered from poor games or poor stretches to flirt with or make history in March. VCU’s Final Four team ended the regular season with four losses in five games, including a 20-point loss to George Mason.

Last season, William & Mary lost four CAA games by at least 15 points—including a 17-point loss at Hofstra, which finished the season with five league wins—yet came within a missed Marcus Thornton buzzer-beater of winning the conference title game (sorry, Gheorghe The Blog)

Whether the Dutchmen bounce all the way back to the NCAA Tournament or not, there will be better, November- and December-esque days ahead, perhaps as soon as this week. Beginning tonight, the Dutchmen’s next three games are against the bottom-tier trio of Towson, Delaware and Elon. So perhaps the Northeastern rematch on Feb. 12 will be for a share of second place, or of first place.

We will adjust to each other’s quirks, and begin to laugh about them instead of letting them ruining an otherwise fine evening, as this new relationship evolves.

But right now, we want more from a basketball team that has scaled heights this season the program didn’t even come close to achieving the previous three years, and more than a fiery start resulting in a quick flameout in the CAA Tournament.

Less than an hour after the loss to James Madison, I was in line to see Extreme (i.e. The Official Band of Defiantly Dutch) at The Space at Westbury. While waiting, I heard the band’s soundcheck and their performance of the 1995 song “Hip Today.” I promptly texted the chorus—“You’ll be gone tomorrow, you’ll be gone tomorrow, hip today”—to my wife as a summation of what we'd just seen. That’s normal, right?

As better as things are now than they were one, two and three years ago at this time, it’s no longer enough. We want the Dutchmen to become hip again beginning tonight, and to remain that way for the next 37 days.

(At least)