Thursday, November 13, 2008

Defiantly Dutch Q&A: Tom Pecora

Below you’ll find the centerpiece of our Flying Dutchmen basketball preview: A Q&A with head coach Tom Pecora, who was kind enough to sit down after practice Wednesday and provide his take on the season that begins Friday against Clemson at the Charleston Classic.

Among the topics Pecora discusses are the emergence of Charles Jenkins, the promise of the trio of transfers, the new-found front court depth, how he thinks the Dutchmen can replace the leading scorer in school history and why he’s still driven 15 years after he and Jay Wright began to rebuild a once-dormant program.

Hopefully this further whets your appetite for the opening tip (which is a little less than 41 hours from now, but who’s counting?). Thanks to Tom for taking the time to speak with me and to men’s basketball publicist Jeremy Kniffin for setting up the interview.

What is it about Charles Jenkins that’s made him the first sophomore to emerge as the face of the program since Speedy Claxton?

He’s a junior academically, he redshirted that first year because he came in as a 16-year-old freshman. So I think that gave him a great starting point last season, because he had that year under his belt where he was able to really learn the program and the system and all of those things. But he’s a natural leader. His teammates love him. He’s a great teammate and that’s important. And at the same time, he’s not afraid to get in guys’ faces, motivate and get guys moving where they need to be. I think it’s a fine combination and it speaks volumes that he was voted captain as a sophomore. That’s really a strong statement, I think.

And yeah, the torch has been passed along to him, I guess you would say, in this whole process that we’ve had with guards. But that’s one of the reasons why we brought in Cornelius Vines and Troy Dennison, the two junior college guards, to play next to him. [They’re] experienced, have a little bit more experience, [are] a little bit older. So hopefully he can play off them. It’s going to be a transitional period, just like there was with Antoine without Carlos and Loren. And so it goes.

What’s the reason for the renewed sense of optimism entering this season as compared to last year?

Last year, we weren’t young, but we were inexperienced. There were a lot of juniors that hadn’t played a lot of minutes. That was one of our biggest problems. The other thing is we became a one-dimensional team because Antoine was so good. Too often, they would defer to him during the course of games and [when] there was a time to make a big play and all those kinds of things. So I’m much more comfortable with a balanced team. Antoine was a great player and you’re not going to get one guy to replace him. And I would prefer one guy doesn’t. I would prefer we have multiple guys scoring in double figures and we get back to having a real balanced attack.

You’re known as a coach who builds his team around excellent guard play, yet this team has more front court depth than you’ve ever had. How did the transformation come about?

I think we’ll see. Time will tell on that. We are deeper than we’ve ever been and we have guys who were starting for us who will probably come off the bench. So we’ll be deep and experienced in that sense. I think Miklos has an opportunity to be a special player for us at the forward spot as the year goes on and he gets used to the transition from junior college and the pace of the game and all those things that take place.

But we expect big things from seniors. You have Dane Johnson, you have Darren Townes, you have Arminas Urbutis, you have Mike Davis-Saab. You’re looking at senior front court players—we need them to have big years. You’re only as good as your seniors most years and last year we only had one. We had Antoine and that showed. So hopefully this year, the seniors can really step up and make a difference.

How valuable is front court depth at the mid-major level?

On any level, I think. I always compare front court play to offensive line play in football. You have to control the line of scrimmage. Well, in college basketball, you’ve got to [control] the front court, too. And we know we can get good guards. The key is getting forwards to develop into good players, because rarely are you going to get one who comes in good. Because if they were that good and that big, they’d be in a BCS conference.

How do you hasten the adaption process for all the transfers that are coming in?

I try to simplify—I really try to simplify offense and defense for them, especially going into this one weekend. I’m really looking at this weekend as almost a separate season. And then after that we have a good stretch of a week and then another week before we play a game, so I can really put some more things in over the two weeks that follow this tournament.

Which newcomer and which returnee do you see as guys who can really emerge this season?

With the returnees, I think one of the forwards—Darren Townes, Dane Johnson or Greg Washington—we need them to step up. I think one of them’s got to have an all-conference level type of season. And then with the newcomers, once again, you have three to pick from. I think Miklos could be the one, but Cornelius Vines has been playing very well until he hurt his thumb [Tuesday]. Tony Dennison, it’ll take a little bit of time for him to acclimate to the speed of the game, the physical-ness of the game, but he’s very talented as well.

I know it was only a scrimmage, but Miklos looked really good two weeks ago. What is it about him that has you believing he can be a difference-maker?

He’s been inconsistent, up and down, but that’s natural during the practice process this time of the year. There’s bigger bodies on the floor, everybody’s practicing harder and he’s trying to absorb a new system. But his skill level—he can pass the ball, he can shoot the ball, he rebounds it, he can score inside and out. And that’s the kind of skills forwards need to play the way we play. He’s like a bigger Aurimas Kieza.

Is the CAA as deep as it looks from the outside?

Yeah. I think everyone picked VCU and then they threw the rest of the teams in the hat and just started pulling them out. And that’s kind of how it looks like it’s going to play out. So I think it’s going to be interesting as always. It’s going to be a tough league and a league that’s just so tough to win on the road. You’ve got to try to steal a few on the road and hold serve at home.

The pre-season polls have Hofstra ranked around seventh. What do you say to those who may not be expecting much out of your team this season?

I don’t know. I know in the coaches’ poll we were seven. I didn’t look at a whole lot of the other ones. I think if you look at polls over the course of the year, rarely are they right, you know? So I don’t put a whole lot of credence in them. I use them to motivate my team. And they know they’re not a seventh-place team. So it’s good to put on a billboard there—on the corkboard—in the locker room.

You said after last season you didn’t want a 12-17 record to be your legacy. How do the memories of last year drive you and the 10 returnees?

I told them this is their senior season and it’s important for them to realize you are what your record says you are. So be the guys who turned this around and people will think even that much more of you and they’ll know how special you are.

Lastly, this is the beginning of your 15th year here. Do you ever marvel at how far the program has come since you arrived?

I’m honored to have said I was part of building this thing in the beginning with Jay and Brent [Gunning] and Joe Jones. And that’s why I’m passionate about it. But there’s so much more for us to do and our work isn’t done yet. So at the same time, I’m still very motivated about helping this program go to the next level. And that’s our focus everyday. Everything we do, from the time we walk in in the morning [until] we lay our heads down to bed at night, is about how can we make this program better? How do we get this team better? How do we represent Hofstra better?

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