Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Q&A with Tom Pecora in which he prays for mojo

Sure, Pecora was referring to Austin Powers' mojo. But there's nothing funnier in the world than posting a picture of Homer's overfed and "house-trained" helper monkey.

Caught up with Tom Pecora this morning, immediately after the shoot-around at Hofstra Arena and a few hours before the Flying Dutchmen try to snap out of their funk against ECC rival Delaware.

Pecora is optimistic the Dutchmen will—warning! Old-school pun coming up!—right the ship soon but also candid about the causes of his team’s recent nosedive and what the Dutchmen—and struggling players such as Charles Jenkins, Tony Dennison and Miklos Szabo—will have to do to aid the cause. He also discusses the emotional nature of Cornelius Vines, expresses his hope that the Dutchmen’s six seniors will play with a renewed sense of urgency now that the clock is winding down on their careers and how he handles the criticism he’s absorbed over the last few weeks.

Oh and Pecora also gives me months and months of photo material by uttering the word “mojo.” Oh sweet bountiful gift.

Enough out of me, go read what Tom has to say. Thanks to Tom for his time and to Jeremy Kniffin for setting up the interview. See you at the game tonight. I’ll be the one storming the court. (True story: Heard Queen’s “We Are The Champions” on the way to Hofstra. A good sign, perhaps?)

The last few weeks have obviously been rough for you guys. Was there a specific turning point in that stretch or was it a gradual build?

I think it was distinct. I think we were playing well into finals. We came out of finals and played poorly at UMass. It’s like Austin Powers—we’ve lost our mojo. [laughs] I think it’s directly related to Charles. Charles has got to get back to playing the way he’s capable of playing. If he plays poorly, we probably win three of the last four games. But he’s just played worse than that. And he’s aware of it and he and I talk about it all the time. The other night, 1-for-9 and six turnovers, he’s never played worse than that. So everything’s looking up from there, I think, for him.

He continues to work hard. They all do and it’s nothing a win won’t fix. You’re never as good as you think you are and never as bad as you think you are. So we’ve just got to find a way to win one tonight and then we’ll be 10-5, you know? [laughs] All of a sudden, you lose a few and guys aren’t scoring [and] they stink, I don’t know what I’m doing—all those wonderful emails you get from loyal fans. The same guys that were emailing you when you were 26-5 and calling you a genius. Like I say, you’re never as good, you’re never as bad.

What do you think is wrong with Charles? Is it just a matter of dealing with his first hiccup as a collegian?

I don’t believe in that sophomore jinx nonsense, but I think—hey, look, we’re playing better teams as we get into conference play. He is the focal point of everybody’s scouting report. And very often, when that happens, it can turn into a positive if other guys start stepping up. And now, all of a sudden, you become a more dangerous team by getting secondary and second- and third-level people making big-time plays at times. That hasn’t happened over the last few games. Cornelius Vines, he hasn’t played well. Greg Washington hasn’t played well at the same time and Greg Washington was kind of blossoming into a pretty good player. So it’s all part of the growth process. We say all the time: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve got to finish strong.

Does this stretch remind you at all of the 2004-05 season, when you went 1-5 immediately after a 9-0 start?

I didn’t compare it to that—a few people had mentioned that to me, but yeah, that could be. Look, the spirit is good, which is similar to that group. Yesterday, we came in after losing Monday night and not being able to score at all. I said ‘All right, we’re going to watch a real good college basketball team today. We’re going to watch some tape before practice of a game.’ And we watched our game versus Towson. And I said ‘That’s a good team. That’s you guys three weeks ago. So c’mon. Let’s get back to playing with the kind of passion, doing the things that we can do, and we’ll be fine.’

Outside of falling behind 12-2 early, that was a pretty thorough game for you guys.

We played our asses off. We had great spirit. It was a team effort. And all those things are very important to me. So yeah, I wanted them to see that. I wanted them to see themselves. And afterward, I said ‘That was you and that was you and that was you and that was you and it was everyone in this room. It’s nobody different.’ I think we’ll be OK.

Why have Tony Dennison and Miklos Szabo been inconsistent?

I think with Tony and Mikey, there’s a transition. I know we went through this with Adrian Uter. It took him about halfway through the season—it’s coming up at the end of this week for them—to really start figuring it out. It’s the speed of the game, the intensity—not only of the game, but the practices. In junior college, [Szabo] was the biggest, strongest in most games and Tony was the most athletic, quickest. So they could just get by on raw talent, where now they’ve got to work on every possession to make plays happen. But I think that’s coming along.

How do you approach a slump like this as a coach?

Well, I think they play off of you, so the one thing you never do is panic. And you just don’t lose faith in them, because I truly believe offensively—especially the shooting aspect of offense—is so much confidence. It’s from the neck up. So I have to let them know I still believe in them. If they’re not doing their extra work and their extra shooting—especially this time of year—then it’s crazy, because we’re not in classes. They all come in at night and shoot, so long as they continue to work hard, I have faith in them. I think—I know—we have a very good bunch of young men and I think the problem is they’re all trying to please everybody so much that when they don’t play well they get down. And you’ve got to almost be a little bit of a jerk in the sense to keep that swagger and say ‘Hey, I’m gonna make the next one, I don’t care that I missed that one. I’m gonna forget about that play and make the next play.’

Cornelius is a player who seems to have that swagger, that ability to forget a bad shot.

Yeah, Cornelius—we’ve got to rein him in a little. Which, to be quite honest, I would rather do. It’s nice to have to take a little air out of the tire instead of having to pump it up all the time.

He got pretty emotional after a couple foul calls Monday, after which you and some of his teammates were seen trying to calm him down.

He doesn’t realize you throw your arms up—well, the officials, they’re egomaniacs too. And they’re gonna say ‘This [expletive] kid’s showing me up. Boom. Here’s a touch [technical foul]. How do you like that? Now you’ve got to sit.’ And that’s all part of the game. That’s part of being mature and understanding. It’s just like a coach who goes out and flails his arms and pointing and stuff. Well, of course you’re going to get a ‘T.’ Or they’re going to punish your team next three trips down the floor. You’ve got to understand what’s really going on out there.

What has allowed Greg Johnson to work his way back into the starting lineup?

We have six seniors, so I’m hoping that some of these seniors step up and have the kind of years seniors usually can have for you. [In] Greg Johnson’s case, I think he’s our only true point guard and he gets us into offense and he can handle double-teaming and things like that, that kind of pressure, better than others. He kind of played the way I thought he would play the other night, but I thought we’d get more out of the sophomores, Jenkins and Washington.

When you talk about seniors emerging, do you think back to 2001 and the likes of Roberto Gittens and Greg Springfield really coming on during the second half?

Especially those two. It’s funny—Norm Richardson was here at Christmas and we were talking about that and he says ‘Hey, Roberto didn’t start playing like Roberto until we had 12 games left.’ Greg Springfield, the same thing. Sometimes, seniors, the light goes on. ‘Holy [smokes], I’ve got a dozen games left, I’ve got 15 games left.’ So that’s something I’ll start putting on the board in the corner somewhere. I’ll have the countdown, game-wise, and let them see that each day.

What are your thoughts so far on the rest of the CAA?

Crazy. Crazy—even more so [than usual]. I think the crazy thing about the CAA is this four games in a week thing. [It’s] good for some teams and not so good at all for others. Some teams are playing three home games, some teams are playing one or I think two. You already don’t play a balanced schedule. You just go out, you’ve got to play who’s on your schedule. You’ve got to find a way to win the game and then just look at your next game. You can’t think about it too much because there’s no method to it.

There’s no break in the schedule for you guys. Do you ever worry about your team looking ahead and seeing the challenges ahead—VCU, Drexel, Northeastern—and placing more pressure on itself to win now and end this skid?

That’s the league. That’s any good league. You know, look: When we were playing in the other conference years ago, this was the best job in the conference. We had the best players in the conference. And you could look at your schedule and you could say ‘All right. We’re going to win here, here, here, here and here’ and there were teams that we didn’t lose to over a five-, six-year period. That’s not going to happen in this league. The level of play is higher. Everything is better.

We really talk all the time about one-game winning streak and live in the moment—that type of stuff. I don’t think they get worried about that. I think coaches think about that kind of stuff. We’re the ones who need to be concerned with that, not them.

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