I can’t tell you exactly where I was in the trip from Gampel Pavilion to my Dad’s house last night—it might have been Burlington; if you’ve heard of it, I was probably the designated driver at the kegger we hit in northwest Connecticut in 1992 or so—when it occurred to me the theme of the Flying Dutchmen’s compelling 76-67 loss to 12th-ranked UConn could not be summarized in one or two of the many memorable images the Dutchmen snapped Tuesday.
Let’s sift through the shoebox, shall we? (Nobody stores photos in a shoebox anymore, but I like the analogy so work with me here)
Cornelius Vines jumping up and down in front of the Hofstra bench before the tip-off, and later staring at the UConn student section and pointing to the words across his chest after hitting a 3-pointer. Nathaniel Lester, Chaz Williams and Charles Jenkins driving the lane at will despite giving up many inches and many more pounds to the Huskies’ big men. Jenkins doing against UConn what he does against a whole bunch of opponents UConn fans have never heard of: Emerging from a quiet first half (four points) to take the game over late and hit big shot after big shot in a 21-point second half.
Halil Kanacevic, eight months removed from starring in the basketball Siberia that is Staten Island and becoming the last of this year’s five scholarship freshmen to sign a letter of intent with Hofstra, collecting 10 rebounds and scoring eight points. There’s the Dutchmen outhustling and outworking the Huskies down low and enjoying a 43-39 rebounding advantage.
There’s Jenkins, Kanacevic and Vines combining to drain five 3-pointers in six attempts during a span of 2:24 midway through the second half in which the Dutchmen took a 54-45 lead and threatened to turn the seemingly impossible into the probable.
Vines fouling out with 1:39 left and refusing to be the chum for the student section, which serenades disqualified players with a chant of “Left…right…left…right…SIT!” Vines continued to stand, until play finally resumed and he had to sit down.
Williams was even more defiant 80 seconds later, when he drew his fifth foul and continued to stand in front of his chair. Vines even put an arm on Williams’ elbow, as if to tell the freshman he supported him, and Williams might still be standing there if Van Macon hadn’t motioned for him to take a seat (at which point, it should be noted, the student section shouted “SIT!”).
After participating in the post-game handshake, Jenkins turned around, as if to get a glimpse of what could have been, and pulled his jersey over his head. Vines came along and the two draped an arm around each other as they walked off the floor and out of sight.
Take these images, spread them out on the floor in front of you to create a collage—or, if you must, display them one after the other in a slideshow on the laptop—and absorb them in the collective in order to understand the meaning of an evening in the sticks of Connecticut:
The Flying Dutchmen belong.
This is usually the point in the conversation where I riff on a cheesy ‘80s song, but for the first time in the last 14 months I’m not going to make a pizza here. Last night was about Tom Pecora and the Dutchmen refusing to be the round peg in the little round hole in which mid-majors are expected to reside without complaint—and expecting greatness even as they agree to play by the ever-shifting rules that are devised to favor the UConns of the world.
The powers that be—the NCAA and its broadcast partners—want to marginalize those who don’t sit at the BCS table and make the mid-majors grateful for any morsel of food thrown their way. Look no further than the Monmouth-Saint Peter’s game that aired at 6 am Tuesday as part of ESPN’s 24-hour college basketball marathon.
Do I love the idea of watching basketball as the sun rises? Hell yeah. Do I love the concept of a school doing something funky like this and also hosting an all-night party in advance of it? Sure. As long as it’s the school’s idea.
But what transpired Tuesday morning was so damn condescending. “Aww, isn’t it cute, the widdle mid-majors are so eager to appear on ESPN, they’ll do so at 6 am on a Tuesday!” Next up: A 4 a.m. game in which players wear pajamas and the fans play truth or dare during the TV timeouts.
I thought often yesterday of Hofstra’s decision not to pursue a bid to the CBI or CollegeInsider.com Tournament last season. My disappointment in the choice is well-known, but you know what? I’m starting to get Pecora’s reasoning behind it, and beginning to believe it’s a lot more than a convenient excuse for the administration’s tight purse strings.
As Pecora told the New York Daily News’ Dick Weiss in May: If the mid-majors leap at the CBI or CIT, then what is to stop the NCAA and NIT—both of which are now run by the NCAA—from completely ignoring the mid-majors as at-large candidates? And in regards to yesterday: How can the national perception of mid-majors change if they acquiesce to ESPN and play a gimmick game as the roosters crow?
The Powers That Be want little to do with the mid-majors in the NCAA Tournament. But until they drop all pretenses and officially slam the door on the Hofstras of the world, the NCAA Tournament is still the ultimate destination for every Division I player and coach.
To get there, the Flying Dutchmen must play by the rules established by those who are actively trying to come up with ways to not invite them to the party. And the rules, this year anyway, say that a team like Hofstra has to play a rigorous non-conference schedule in order to boost its RPI.
Pecora will speak well of the boost in profile Hofstra gets from these games, because it’s a good talking point and it’s important to the people who sign his checks. But the goal of trips to Kansas and, particularly, Storrs isn’t to end up on SportsCenter or to generate a couple bullet points within the literature Hofstra distributes to potential students and in the annual reports distributed by the athletic department and president’s office.
It’s to win. There is no joy in how close the Dutchmen came to turning UConn’s 61-4 record against non-conference foes at Gampel into 60-5, no ultimate satisfaction in having a chance to take the lead in the final minute.
Victory is the objective, even in a game that is tilted to favor your opponent. When you agree to play Texas Hold ‘Em with a five-card stud hand, there can be no complaints when the three of a kind is trumped by the full house on fifth street.
UConn was 30-of-36 from the line Tuesday while the Dutchmen went just 10-of-12. Purely coincidental that 24 hours earlier, Jim Calhoun called it “despicable” that the Huskies went to the line just 10 times against Colgate Monday.
Pecora’s reaction immediately after the game? “That’s a big-time crew, they’re all good officials. We had the opportunity to take the game and we didn’t…I don’t think the officials made a big difference in the game.”
And if the Dutchmen go 27-7, lose in the CAA finals, possess an RPI in the top 40 and are still denied an at-large bid this season? Then Pecora and Jack Hayes will ask what they need to do differently to improve Hofstra’s candidacy next year, and The Powers That Be will recommend something different than they recommended last year, and the Dutchmen will do it, and just like last night, any complaints about the process will not be made for public consumption.
Because that’s what teams do when they belong.