The Flying Dutchmen are in the midst of their longest losing streak in seven seasons and their worst conference start ever under Tom Pecora, but a casual “how are you?” directed at the coach yields an upbeat and positive answer.
Pecora said Tuesday the Dutchmen are still hopefully they’ll get the services of junior guard Brad Kelleher, who remains held hostage by the NCAA, and that the rest of the roster—particularly freshmen Chaz Williams and David Imes, who have been battling high ankle sprains—is getting healthier. He’s also pleased with the general effort and confident displayed by the Dutchmen and confident the second half of the conference season will be far better than the first.
“All you’ve got to do is find one win and then the whole world changes,” Pecora said. “It’s time for us to get on a little bit of a run here. Ten games left, six of the 10 at home. With the exception of Northeastern, we’re playing teams that we can move against, they’re all in our area [of the standings], so to speak. And I think those top schools are going to start beating each other up a little bit. And one or two of them will come down and meet the pack as the year goes on. So that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Here’s the rest of our Q&A in which Pecora discusses the Dutchmen’s slump and the issues facing the squad. Thanks as always to Pecora for his time and accessibility.
You sound optimistic.
Nobody died, you know? [laughs] Last year, some guys didn’t have good first halves and they had great second halves and that’s why we played well late going into the tournament, because Nathaniel Lester and Washington started playing well. They do that again—[and] Corny Vines has been playing better—we start getting some quality games out of those three guys, I think we’re going to be fine. And the expression ‘You’re never as bad as you think you are”—we’re really four wins away from being right where we thought we were. If we’re 13-8, we’d probably be saying ‘Hey, we’re right where we thought we’d be with this group and now it’s time to make our move.’ We’d be saying the same thing. We obviously had a plan and we had to change the plan with the issue with Brad and with a couple of the injuries and things like that. So we shall survive.
Do you think this has been an imperfect storm of sorts, between the Kelleher issue and the injuries and the schedule that had you alternating home and away games for the first nine games of this month?
Welcome to the CAA. To be quite honest, if Kelleher plays from the ninth game on, I don’t think a lot of this is the issue, because you’ve got a guy who’s going to play 30 minutes for you in the backcourt. You’ve got a veteran with the basketball late in games. But once again, it is what it is. You can only play the hand that’s dealt you.
Do you think those of us on the outside underestimated the value of last year’s senior class because it didn’t have overwhelming statistics?
Oh, very much so. I think it was leadership and toughness. I think it was Mike Davis Sabb’s locker room, which was a good thing. And I think that him and ‘Pittsy’ [Arminas Urbutis] and Dane [Johnson]—there were days they would just foul each other for two hours straight in practice. But you know what? That’s a good thing. It lends to that no lay up rule. It lends to that toughness. And I think we kind of hoped that that had translated to Mikey [Szabo] and to Greg Washington and to Nat. But we’re still working on it. I think Dave Imes is cut out of that cloth, and not having him on the court has hurt us because he’s probably our physically toughest baseline guy.
I met with all the veterans yesterday, I talked to them and said ‘It’s time for you guys to take ownership of this.’ As a coach, I can only get you so far. And I’ve said that in our best years. When we won 26 games, that locker room was owned by Carlos Rivera and Loren Stokes and that’s what got you over the top. And we missed them greatly the following year, not only the basketball ability but their leadership. And then last year it was Mike Davis Sabb and Darren Townes. They played really hard, those guys, and Pittsy and Dane, and it was their locker room and they led it. So I talk to the seniors all the time about your legacy is what your senior year is.
Do you think one win at some point these last few weeks would have changed everything?
Yeah, no doubt. I think the two losses that probably took their confidence—especially the young guys—was St. John’s, because it was a game we were winning and then at the end we gave it away, and then William & Mary the same thing. They had grown very accustomed to winning close games around here—we all have—and that was because of our great backcourt play and because of our toughness. We were just out-toughing people down the stretch.
Do you look to previous seasons in which you struggled as you try to come up with answers this year?
Well, sometimes. But I think the dynamics of teams are different. As coaches you always look within yourself first. Am I practicing them too hard? Are they tired? Are they prepared? They’re not making shots, let me chart every shot that’s taken. We do all of that. We’ve been getting some pretty good shots—I think we’re probably averaging four or five missed layups a game. So let’s make that one missed layup a game and then our record is drastically different, you know what I mean? So we look at all of those things, I think, but different teams have different chemistry and they have to be treated differently.
I think that’s one of the fun things and the challenge about coaching. It’s not fun when you’re going through a stretch like this, but the point is it makes you a better coach, and when adversity strikes, the true man comes out. So you get to see what people are made of. And they’re still sticking together, they’re still practicing hard, they’re still looking out for each other. So that means good things can still happen. If you’re in a situation like this and guys are finger pointing and making excuses and the team is breaking into factions, then you realize that you’ve got major problems. We’re not at that point, by a long stretch.
I was going to ask you how much self-examination a coach and his staff goes through at a time like this.
With tweezers. With a fine-tooth comb. I look at everything that we’re doing. I talk to our guys about our recruiting. I talk to them about the players we brought in. I talked to them about the players we’re looking to bring in. Are they going to solve the problem here and strengthen our weaknesses? So no one has gotten less sleep than me. Trust me on that one. And then probably second to me is my staff.
How much do you think the routine of getting back to school helps you guys do so well in February?
I think a lot has to do with getting students here [for] our home games. We get much more of a home court advantage when we’re in February. Generally, we’ve always drawn better in February with the students and people—football’s over, all that kind of stuff. Jets season is over. And then I kid around and say it’s probably because by February they’ve stopped listening to me.
How disappointing has this season been to you? I can’t imagine anyone expected to be 2-7 at this point.
Without a doubt, it’s disappointing. But [shoot], that’s life, man, Life’s not fair. So you just grind it out and you hope that good things happen. You keep working hard. We had different plans, you know? Guys were forced to play a ton of minutes that I really thought weren’t going to have to play many at all. I really thought that Chaz and Halil would be 20 minutes a game guys, 15 minutes a game guys, because Kelleher would take so many minutes in the backcourt and I thought it was going to be hard to take Washington and Lester off the court. And it’s been easy.
Do you envision playing the freshmen more down the stretch?
No, I want these guys to develop and I want—I expect—Vines and Washington and Lester to have big second halves now, finish strong the last 10 games of the year. And if they do that, we’ll be a different team. I haven’t thrown in the towel, not at all. That’s kind of what it would be, if you gave up on your veterans like that, you know what I mean? The veterans haven’t given up on us so I’m not going to give up on them.
Lastly, teams that start 2-7 or worse in conference play generally don’t fare much better in the second half. How do you keep from getting bogged down by the task ahead of you?
So we’ve got a chance to make history. I don’t think [those other teams had] our circumstances. They didn’t have Charles Jenkins and they didn’t lose—maybe they did lose their starting point guard, I don’t know the history of it. But I still think that there’s a lot of basketball left and we can still have an opportunity to make history and end up with a good record. I don’t know if we’ll end up with a winning record in the league—we have to, what, lose one game the rest of the way? But that doesn’t mean that we can’t go into the tournament [on a high note]. I think it’s going to be a mish-mosh, I still think we can end up [seeded] five, six, seven in the tournament and make a run at this thing if we’re healthy and we have people back.