To drive down Hempstead Turnpike Saturday night was to travel the bell curve of emotions experienced by Flying Dutchmen fans this season.
We drove to Miller’s Ale House, the restaurant where we watched the Dutchmen open the season against Kansas, to buy a gift card for Loyal Reader and former Vander Poel Hall roommate John, whose surprise 40th birthday party was Saturday night. (Happy Birthday dude, in your honor, I will sleep through my alarm this morning!)
Seventy-one nights earlier, the conversation and mood in the car during the drive to Miller’s was overflowingly optimistic. The Dutchmen could beat Kansas…they could beat UConn in the preseason NIT four days later…they could win the CAA Tournament in March…they could win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
Sure, it all seemed a bit outlandish, but it wasn’t stare-at-white-walls crazy, either. The Dutchmen wouldn’t open the season by visiting two of college basketball’s holiest places if big things weren’t possible, right?
Being in the car on a Saturday night also reminded me of three weeks earlier, when my wife and I hashed out the one-point loss to William & Mary while driving around the Island. She thought it was a sign of bad things to come. I worried it defined a season and perhaps an era, one in which the Dutchmen would master the near-miss. But still…it was early. The unbridled optimism was gone, but there was still plenty of sun visible behind the clouds.
Not anymore. There was no optimism in the car conversation Saturday night, no glimpses of the sun to be found a few hours after the Dutchmen fell to Drexel, 75-62, in a game that was absolutely nowhere near as close as the final score would indicate.
Unlike both William & Mary games and the first George Mason game, there was no second half lead, no possibility the Dutchmen could record that Signature Win the program has lacked the last several years. And they were not even competitive in defeat, unlike against Old Dominion or the last two home games against VCU and Mason.
The Dutchmen led once after the first media timeout of the afternoon, fell behind by double digits for good with a little more than six minutes left in the first half and were down by 30 (63-33) less than halfway through the second half before ending the game on a meaningless 29-12 run that made the final score cosmetically closer. They were down by 20 with 30 seconds left before scoring the final seven points, including five in the final five seconds on a 3-pointer by Chaz Williams and a layup by Nathaniel Lester following his steal of the inbounds pass.
It almost would have been better if the Dutchmen ended up suffering the worst conference loss of the Pecora Era (24 points at the hands of both Mason—hi new friends!—in 2009 and UNC Wilmington in 2002), because the final score might lull those who didn’t see the game into believing it was another fairly close loss for a team that seems to be one win away from getting over that proverbial and clichéd hump.
It wasn’t. It was a disaster. It IS a disaster—the worst season of the Defiantly Dutch Era.
The Dutchmen have lost five straight games for the first time since the 2002-03 season and are 2-7 at the halfway point of the CAA season, their worst mark through nine games under Pecora and the program’s worst record through nine conference games since Jay Wright’s first team was 1-8 in the North Atlantic Conference in 1994-95.
At least during those seasons, some hiccups and long losing streaks were to be expected. The ’94-95 team was transitioning to a new conference and adapting to a completely new coaching staff. The ’02-03 team was in its second year in the far more competitive CAA and played half that season with starters Rick Apodaca and Wendell Gibson suspended due to failed drug tests.
But this—whatever “this” is—wasn’t supposed to happen. The schedule was not upgraded with the expectation that the Dutchmen would be 2-7 and 9-12 by the time Super Bowl hype began. Teams that feature the preseason co-player of the year—and neither Wright’s first team nor Pecora’s second squad had anyone near the caliber of Charles Jenkins—are not supposed to be buried this early.
Maybe the high hopes of Nov. 13 were more tongue-in-cheek than realistic—even I, the world’s biggest Hofstra Homer, didn’t foresee an NCAA Tournament berth this year—but nobody’s worst-case scenario foresaw the Dutchmen sliding towards the basement at the halfway point of the conference season and facing an incredibly long and unlikely road back to respectability.
The presence of Jenkins and what appears to be a more forgiving second half schedule suggests the Dutchmen could turn this around fairly quickly and at least salvage a decent finish. And all this pessimism be damned, I know all it will take is consecutive wins for visions of a miraculous March run to begin dancing in my head.
But history is not on the Dutchmen’s side. Eighteen teams have opened conference play 2-7 or worse since the CAA began playing an 18-game conference schedule in 2001-02. Only one team—Towson in 2001-02—has played better than .500 in the second half. Those Tigers also recorded the best finish of the 18 clubs, but they finished seventh in what was then a 10-team league.
Since the CAA expanded to 12 teams in 2005-06, the highest finish for a team that began 2-7 or worse is ninth. And the teams that were 2-7 or worse at the halfway point have combined to win only five CAA Tournament games. Only one team—Towson last season—got as far as the semifinals.
And what, aside from Jenkins, is to indicate the Dutchmen will make history, or at the very least join Towson as a squad that somewhat turned its season around?
Their next three games, and six of their final nine conference tilts, are against teams that are currently 3-6 or worse. But the two teams that will visit Hempstead this week, UNC Wilmington and Delaware, are coming off victories, and after that the Dutchmen head to James Madison, which is presumably still located in Virginia, where the Dutchmen are 0-3 this year and 3-10 in the last three years. Oh well, at least the two lone regular season wins in that span were one-point decisions over James Madison.
In addition, the Dutchmen no longer look like on the cusp of a breakthrough, as they did earlier this month. This is a team that appears to be in the throes of a complete meltdown.
The Dutchmen shot 40 percent or less for the fourth time in five games Saturday, allowed the opponent to shoot better than 45 percent for the fourth straight game and allowed an opposing player to set a career high in points for the third time in those four games.
Jenkins scored 13 points, albeit on 3-of-10 shooting, and Miklos Szabo continued his resurgence with 14 points and five rebounds in a career-high 34 minutes. Szabo has played at least 32 minutes in three of the Dutchmen’s last four games after failing to exceed 31 minutes in any of his first 36 games at Hofstra.
But Cornelius Vines—who sat out the second half Tuesday after telling Pecora he lacked confidence—didn’t play at all Saturday, even though the Dutchmen are down to seven scholarship players, and juniors Lester and Greg Washington, who were supposed to comprise the Dutchmen’s core along with Jenkins, continued their inexplicable descent.
Lester played 24 minutes, fewest of the starters and the sixth straight game in which he has played fewer than 30 minutes. He played at least 30 minutes in 11 of the Dutchmen’s first 15 games. Washington had six points and six rebounds, but only two points and one rebound in the first half.
One minor positive about bottoming out—whether it finally happened Saturday or whether it’s yet to take place—is it will allow for more on-the-job auditions for freshmen such as Yves Jules and David Imes as Pecora finds out what he has for next year behind Jenkins and freshmen Williams and Halil Kanacevic. Imes is sidelined by a high ankle sprain but Jules played 23 minutes Saturday and scored a career-high eight points, including seven unanswered immediately after Drexel took its 30-point lead.
Things are so bad that we’ve got to gaze six hours south to our good friends in Mason Nation for some glimmers of hope. The Patriots are 8-1 and tied for first place with a starting lineup comprised of three sophomores and two juniors. So maybe the Dutchmen will make a dramatic leap forward next year with Jenkins and four underclassmen in the starting lineup. Of course, Mason's starters have the experience of reaching the CAA championship game and playing in a postseason tournament game, two luxuries that will almost surely continue to escape the Dutchmen this season.
Relying on George Mason for encouragement is no fun at all. But what choice do we have, after a drive down Hempstead Turnpike reminded us the 2009-10 Dutchmen are on the road to nowhere?
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Drexel, 1/23)
3: Miklos Szabo
2: Charles Jenkins
1: Yves Jules
Charles Jenkins 37
Chaz Williams 21
Halil Kanacevic 18
Nathaniel Lester 18
Miklos Szabo 15
Cornelius Vines 8
Greg Washington 8
Yves Jules 1