Monday, November 17, 2008

This guy was right!

Words I know I'll never have to warble to my wife: "I want you...I need you...but there ain't no way I'm ever going to love you if you continue to call Hofstra the Pride."

Back in the day as a pup reporter, I admit it: I was That Guy, the one who asked a manager or a coach if he thought a pivotal, dramatic regular season victory was going to be a turning point for his team.

Looking back, it makes me cringe, and I’m sure it made the grizzled vets around me laugh and made the manager or coach cringe, too. (Especially this guy). I mean, unless it’s Game Seven of the World Series, how can you recognize a turning point in the moment? Momentum is a fluky thing, on both the winning and losing side.

For every example of the 1994 Jets, who responded to the Fake Spike by losing their final four games of the season as well as 28 of the next 32 after that (for a good laugh, read the linked story and absorb how confident the Jets were of their ability to bounce back), there’s the 2001 Yankees, who looked like mortal locks to win their fourth straight World Series after consecutive stunning extra-inning victories over the Diamondbacks in Games Four and Five…yet ended up falling in Games Six and Seven in Arizona.

With all that said, old habits are sometimes tough to shake. So I’ve wondered over the last day or so if the Flying Dutchmen defined their season at the Charleston Classic by following a lopsided 98-69 defeat at the hands of Clemson with a 71-68 overtime win over Western Michigan (here’s the Newsday recap) and a dramatic 76-75 victory over East Tennessee State.

Sure, it’s early and sure, it doesn’t appear very likely that wins over Western Michigan (which finished last in the eight-team tourney) or ETSU will provide much of a boost to the RPI. And sure, Tom Pecora called this weekend a separate season for his still developing club—three games that counted in the standings, but a trio of contests that would not necessarily be a reflection of what to expect from the Flying Dutchmen.

But maybe these games did exactly that. In terms of its pacing and competition, the rest of the non-conference schedule will provide the Dutchmen plenty of opportunity to gel without suffering too much damage. But they may not make as many strides over the eight non-conference games before New Year’s as they did in three games in Charleston.

In addition, last weekend was almost certainly the best chance this season for Pecora to learn about his team’s character and intestinal fortitude—how it responds to getting knocked down and how it can handle multiple games on consecutive days.

The Dutchmen won’t play games on consecutive days again until the CAA tournament (if, of course, they get beyond their first game). And Hofstra will play two games in a three-day span just once the rest of the regular season—Jan. 3-5, when it hosts Drexel and visits Northeastern.

So if Hofstra gets throttled in every aspect of the game again, just as it did when the entire Clemson roster contributed to a 98-69 rout late Friday, it’ll have multiple days to recover and adjust. This weekend, it had 17 hours before it took on Western Michigan. And after the Flying Dutchmen got 67 points from their starters in beating WMU, they had a whole 19 hours before coming back to beat ETSU.

Does that mean the Dutchmen would be irreparably soft and lacking resilience had they gotten swept in South Carolina? Not at all. But it also means that Pecora may not have to worry about spending time this season figuring out if his team can summon that extra something in the waning minutes of a game.

Again, it’s early, but to see the Dutchmen win a game with what amounted to a seven-man rotation and then come back to beat ETSU by scoring the final five points of the game—all by Charles Jenkins, the CAA player of the week, I think it’s pretty safe to say it won’t be the last one he wins this year—to win a game in which they had trailed for the previous 18 minutes reminds me of the days when a lean rotation and a late deficit wasn’t cause for concern but a reason to believe.

Remember when the Dutchmen scored the final 12 points to stun Vermont, 74-69, in 2001? Or when Carlos Rivera scored the final six points in overtime as Hofstra shocked Drexel, 76-75, in Philadelphia in 2006?

Obviously, those were conference games, and a little more vital to the team's long-term hopes. But still: Those wins occurred during Hofstra’s two best seasons since it moved to Division I.

Here’s something else to chew over regarding the importance of these three games: Last year, after a lopsided loss to Holy Cross in the opener, the Flying Dutchmen played five straight games that were determined in the final possession (or went into overtime). They were 1-4 on their way to 12-18. The year before, Hofstra lost to Manhattan by two points (79-77) and Hawaii (80-79) in its second and third games of an oddly flat 22-10 season.

Now this admittedly small sample size of not always indicative of how a team will fare. For instance, in Pecora’s first season in 2001, the Flying Dutchmen (back when they actually were the Flying Dutchmen) beat Florida Atlantic and Kent State by nearly identical scores (67-64 and 67-65, respectively) to open the season and edged Illinois State 82-80 in overtime in the fourth game—and finished 12-20. And while 2006-07 was disappointing on the heels of the great screw job and subsequent appearance in the NIT quarterfinals the previous season, the Dutchmen did make the NIT again and won eight games by three or fewer points.

But if the Dutchmen play deep into the first weekend of March, I think we may look back at the first weekend of the season as their defining moment. More on that first weekend tomorrow.

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