Friday, December 11, 2009

As a senior, Vines branches out

For Life With Corny, the ring's the thing.

Cornelius Vines did not exactly do a Loren Stokes impersonation during his first season with the Flying Dutchmen last year. Vines’ season highs in points (23), rebounds (eight), assists (four) and steals (three) were totals that Stokes matched or exceeded eight, four, 11 and seven times, respectively, during his junior campaign in 2005-06.

And Vines was, to put it charitably, not quite as efficient from the field as Stokes, who shot 47.8 percent during his career and took seven 3-point shots just once in a program-high 124 games. “Corny the Chucker” shot 32.7 percent and hoisted at least seven 3-point attempts 19 times in 31 games.

Yet there was Vines last Saturday, channeling Stokes during the 84-64 win at Towson and collecting eight points, a career-high six assists, five rebounds and three steals and using Stokes-like terms to describe his effort, which also included playing shut-down defense on Towson star Josh Thornton.

“This past Saturday was just ‘let me start trying to fill the stat sheet,’ doing whatever I can do to help my team win,” Vines said after a practice earlier this week. “That’s what I tried to do, fill the stat sheet.”

How did this happen? How did one of the notorious free shooters of the Defiantly Dutch era morph into something at least resembling a point guard?

“Kinda gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Tom Pecora said with a laugh. “‘You’ve got to start getting things done here or we’re going to play younger guys.’ And I don’t want to do that.”

While Saturday was Vines’ best game of the season, it was not the first time he’d contributed in ways unimaginable a year ago. The win against Towson marked the third straight game in which he tied or broke his career high in assists and recorded at least five rebounds. He had five or more boards in a game just three times last season.

Vines, who added 15 pounds of muscle during the off-season, has driven the lane much more often than last year and has already taken 28 shots from inside the 3-point line. He took 86 shots from inside the arc last year.

“If I’m coming down and I have a pull-up this year, I’m still going to take it because [Pecora] wants me to shoot that ball—that’s my shot, he says,” Vines said. “But if I have you 1-on-1 and I can get to the rim—and I’m a lot bigger and stronger than last year—I’ve got no problem getting there, because I want to get to the free throw line. It doesn’t bother me because I know that I can do other stuff. I can rebound this year, I’m crashing the boards, I’m averaging about three more boards. So it’s no problem, I’m having fun and we’re winning.”

Vines also has an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2:1 (24:14), a marked improvement from last season’s negative ratio (48:50). He’s exceeded 10 points just twice in nine games and, against Fairfield, took just two shots from the field and scored two points, both from the line, in 23 minutes—the fewest points he’d recorded, up to that point, in 24 starts at Hofstra.

“I’m trying to learn how to play with more of a yellowish green light,” Vines said with a laugh, using one of Pecora’s favorite expressions.

The adaptation may be yielding noticeable results now now, but it’s been an ongoing process since Vines arrived at Hofstra in the summer of 2008. Vines never had to change his shoot-first game for the betterment of the team at any of his previous destinations, most notably Iowa Lakes Community College, where he earned third-team All-American honors as a sophomore.

“Every team I played with before I got here—from high school, AAU to junior college—I wasn’t used to people adapting around me, I had the green light,” Vines said. “In junior college, I guess you could say it was like every man for himself, because everybody’s trying to get to Division I basketball.”

Nor had he ever been with a program that operated like Hofstra’s. “Adapting to the whole scheduling thing—like practice, pre-game, all that stuff,” Vines said. “Sometimes we’ve got an early game, so I had to learn how to wake up in a hotel and do scouting reports, eat breakfast. In junior college, we didn’t have to do that. I just had to stay in bed until it was time to go get on the bus.”

Most notably, the emotional player who operated at his own pace and who so often displayed his mouthpiece last season in jawing with Pecora, officials or opposing players—and whose penchant for creating drama inspired some of us to believe his true calling was as the star of his own reality show—has tried to become a veteran leader on a team in which half the players are new to the program.

Vines reminds his freshmen teammates to remain upbeat even when hitting the wall and enduring the struggles common to most first-year players—and, most importantly, to think before speaking. “The biggest thing I learned [last year] is to keep your mouth shut,” Vines said with a laugh. “You can have the last word, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win. I learned just keep my mouth shut—just keep my mouth shut and just listen to what is being said to me and everything will work out.”

Vines still plays with an edge—he punctuated just about every one of his season-high six 3-pointers against UConn by staring at the student section and pointing to the “Hofstra” across his chest and, seven days later, so annoyed Charlotte forward Shamari Spears during a heated exchange that Spears wouldn’t shake Vines’ hand when Vines tried to apologize during a break in play—and the evolution of his game remains a work in progress.

He said his confidence was shaken when he shot just 1-of-11 in the 80-72 loss to Charlotte. Vines also struggled Wednesday, when he missed all four of his shots—all of which were from beyond the 3-point line—and finished with one point, no assists, five rebounds and four steals in the Dutchmen’s 44-39 win over Manhattan. Afterward, Pecora again said he expected more out of Vines and fellow senior Miklos Szabo.

Still, with the end of his college career on the horizon, Vines realizes that sacrificing his personal stats and maybe swallowing a little—wait for it!!—pride would be a small price to pay for the ultimate capper to his Hofstra experience.

“Getting my teammates involved, if that’s what I have to do for us to get a ring on our finger, I’m willing to do that,” Vines said. “I just want to win, man. If I can leave here with a ring on my finger, that would be a big thing. I want the ring. That’s all that matters, is us winning.”

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