Friday, January 15, 2010

One year later, Dutchmen are once again praying for mojo

Hey, it worked last year.

The good news for the Flying Dutchmen is they have been here before. A year and a day ago, the Dutchmen lost for the fourth time in five January games—and for the sixth time in their last eight games dating back to the weekend before Christmas—and fell to 2-4 in the CAA with a lopsided loss to Drexel.

Some long-winded blogger equated Tom Pecora with a disgusted parent (that one actually still applies, more on that later) and tested the patience and attention span of his loyal readership by tying together his struggles as a Spanish student and high school Casanova with those of the Dutchmen. Said blogger also declared the Dutchmen were “…headed for a second straight lost season,” which didn’t seem so absurd at the time.

The Dutchmen trailed wire-to-wire in three of their four January losses. Nor was the upcoming schedule doing them any favors, not with a game against one of the CAA’s first-place teams immediately on the horizon and a tough southern road trip following shortly thereafter.

Turning things around seemed to be an imposing task for what amounted to a one-man team, as sophomore Charles Jenkins was trying to do everything—and, at the moment, failing miserably—for a roster that featured six underwhelming seniors, three juniors who were all in their first year with the program and three other sophomores, none of whom had yet to emerge as regular starters.

The end result, of course, was better than I envisioned. The Dutchmen surprised unbeaten Northeastern at home Jan. 17 to begin a stretch in which they won nine of their final 12 regular season conference games, a mark bettered by no one and matched only by VCU and Old Dominion. Of the six teams to reach the one-third mark at 2-4 or worse, the Dutchmen were the only one to finish in the top six and the only one to finish with a winning CAA record.

So the moral of the story, then, is to step away from the ledge if you happen to root for the reeling Dutchmen, who are—surprise!—a meager 2-4 in the conference and losers of six of their last eight games following a 81-68 loss to VCU Tuesday. Right? Well, yes, because we could all benefit from adopting the mindset of the coaches and athletes who participate in the games we follow.

But having been here before doesn’t make the climb back into contention any less steep for the Dutchmen, who are both better equipped for such a challenge and facing a set of issues that makes this year even more complicated than last year.

The Dutchmen led William & Mary for the first 39 minutes before losing by a point and held a six-point lead in the second half against George Mason. Even the double-digit defeats have been somewhat encouraging, as the Dutchmen got within one of Old Dominion in the second half and avoided a blowout loss to VCU despite playing an up-tempo game with an undermanned roster.

Of course, staying up at night and wondering about the one or two plays that could have turned 2-4 into 4-2 and staying up and wondering why his team can’t even compete are just different forms of the same torture.

“The difference is there’s a couple games we gave away this year,” Pecora said Tuesday. “And that’s frustrating, as it was last year.”

Jenkins still has his rough moments, but his slumps have not been as epic as last year. And there is more talent at Pecora’s disposal this year, as two starters have already emerged from a promising freshman class.

But today, Pecora would probably rather have last year’s senior class, because at least then he’d have a full roster. Injuries to Chaz Williams and David Imes and the NCAA’s continued screwing of Brad Kelleher have left the Dutchmen with seven scholarship players, which means we may in fact be one day away from seeing walk-on Matt Grogan used to burn fouls in obvious foul situations.

(Note: I have absolutely no idea if this thought has even crossed Pecora’s mind, but it crossed mine Tuesday and reminded me of covering high school basketball, when coaches would put their last kid on the bench into the game in obvious foul situations at the end of halves. Carry on.)

Pecora said all the right things Tuesday about how many teams win with seven-man rotations, but let’s face it, this is not the Stokes-Rivera-Agudio core of five seasons ago. And the lean roster is another hurdle the Dutchmen must overcome in trying to navigate a schedule that is competitively and logistically brutal.

Two weeks ago, we noted the Dutchmen’s “5 in 11” schedule was the second-toughest in the CAA. It wasn’t any easier in reality than it was in theory: The five teams the Dutchmen have played this month have a winning percentage of .617 (50-31), third-best behind only the opponents of Delaware (.622, 51-31) and UNC Wilmington (55-29, .655).

And it’s not getting any easier any time soon. Unlike a year ago, the Dutchmen’s seventh CAA game is a road contest against a conference co-leader. And their next three opponents (William & Mary, George Mason and Drexel) all enter the weekend at least two games above .500 in conference play, which means of the first eight opponents the Dutchmen face this calendar year, seven will have entered their game against Hofstra at or better than .500 in the CAA.

The second half of the conference schedule isn’t exactly a cakewalk either: While they have two games apiece against Delaware and UNC Wilmington, each of whom are 2-4, the Dutchmen are done with winless Towson and will face fellow 2-4 clubs James Madison and Georgia State just once apiece. They get scorching hot Northeastern twice and Drexel once.

On the bright side, the Dutchmen have just one trip south of Delaware after this weekend, which is kind of nice since they’ve been to Virginia enough in the last 14 days to pay taxes there. But that one trip is the front end of a two-game road trip to UNC Wilmington and Delaware, which means the Dutchmen will fly to North Carolina Feb. 12, play the Seahawks Feb. 13, fly home Feb. 14, take a bus to Delaware Feb. 15 and play the Blue Hens Feb. 16.

(Damn southern bias!)

Fortunately, February is historically when Pecora-coached teams hit their stride: Since 2003-04, the Dutchmen are 38-11 in regular season games played after Feb. 1.

Who knows if the results will be the same this year, but Pecora is using the same verbiage as a year ago—right down to the word “mojo,” yeah baby—and subscribing to the belief that the Dutchmen are close to turning things around and that one win could make the difference.

“You just grind it out—I don’t know any other way to do it,” Pecora said. “You just work hard, you prepare the team and at some point we’ll get our mojo back and then we’ll go on a run.

“I’ve been around a while. You’re never as bad as you think you are and you’re never as good as you think you are. So we’re not far off from being right. It’s just a matter of a couple things clicking in and clicking for us. I think we’re going to be OK.”

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