Wednesday, January 13, 2010

VCU 81, Hofstra 68 (Or: Flying Dutchmen, stop teasing)

Nothing good comes from teasing, as we all learned by reading Judy Blume in fourth grade. This book RULED. (It was this picture, BTW, or a clip of Eddie Murphy mimicking Michael Jackson or some hair metal video from the '80s with the word "tease" in the title. You can see my quandary)

Tom Pecora sees the same roster you see. He watches, over and over again, the film of the game you saw last night, when the Flying Dutchmen fell to VCU 81-68, and the game you saw Saturday, when the Dutchmen never led in falling to Old Dominion 57-44.

He knows there are ample excuses to be made for a Flying Dutchmen team that now has as many players in sweats on the sidelines as it does on the court. He knows there are slivers of good news to be rescued from back-to-back defeats, that both times the Dutchmen turned a potential blowout loss into something respectable, and that there are flashes of promise that indicate better days are only a friendly bounce of the ball and maybe a confidence boost away.

But Pecora turns 39 again next week and this is his ninth season as the head coach at Hofstra, which makes him the third-longest tenured coach in the history of the school. He is not logging on to CAAZone and calling for himself to be fired, but this is his legacy job, one located a few minutes from where he grew up, and he is as tired of missing the NCAA Tournament as you are.

With freshman Chaz Williams and Halil Kanacevic having earned their way into the starting lineup, he knows a good case can be made that next year will be a lot better than this one. But he also remembers 2006-07, and how the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the CAA squeaked into the NIT as much on name recognition as merit.

Excuses and rationalizations and all the wait 'til next years are getting him—and, by extension, you and me and everyone else reading this—nowhere.

“It’s a tease, man, you know?” Pecora said. “I don’t want to be teased. I want to win.”

There was no real hope of that in the final 30 minutes Tuesday night. Despite missing Williams, who was on crutches with a high ankle sprain suffered against Old Dominion Saturday, the Dutchmen did a decent job of handling VCU’s full court press early in the first half, but they could not keep up with the Rams’ speed nor with the size of Larry Sanders, the behemoth who had 31 points and five rebounds and operated basically untouched down low, where he made 11 of his 13 shots.

VCU ended the half on a 30-12 run to take a 40-25 lead into the locker room, and though the Dutchmen produced several mini-runs in the second half, they were never able to get closer than seven points.

“Having one or two more bodies definitely would have helped the process,” Pecora said. “For me, it’s frustrating because there’s times you know the right coaching move to make, but you can’t make those moves because of who’s on the floor, whether it’s inexperience or you don’t have the size to do what you want. So it changes your game plan.”

Still, injuries and a thin roster are not an excuse for the Dutchmen playing as passively as they have the last few weeks. One of Pecora’s three goals every game is to commit 12 or fewer turnovers, but the Dutchmen have made more than a dozen turnovers in six of their last eight games and made an even 12 in the other two. Pecora expects aggressiveness out of the Dutchmen on offense, but they took just 12 free throws Tuesday, the seventh time in eight games they have gone to the line 14 or fewer times. And four of those free throws were off technical fouls.

He also felt the Rams outhustled and outmuscled the Dutchmen, which was a difficult admission to make for someone who—wait for it!!—prides himself on coaching teams that embody New York grittiness.

“I just thought they played with greater energy, and that’s a great concern of mine,” Pecora said. “Something we’ll work on [today] in practice. We’re not going to get the other guys back for a while. So we are who we are right now.”

And he expects the Dutchmen, as thinly constructed as they are right now, to be good enough to win games in the CAA. Pecora looks at a roster that now only goes seven deep, at least until Williams and David Imes recover from their high ankle sprains, and remembers how the best team he ever coached only went seven deep.

Six deep, for all intents and purposes: In the epic overtime win over St. Joseph’s in the 2006 NIT, the starting five played 203 out of a possible 225 minutes. Fifteen days earlier, in the CAA Tournament win over George Mason that in any sane and rational and fair world would have catapulted the Dutchmen into the NCAA Tournament, the starting five played 192 of a possible 200 minutes.

“Seven players isn’t an excuse,” Pecora said. “There’s teams that play seven every night. I’ve seen teams go to the Final Four playing seven players. Excuses only satisfy the people who make them. I tell that to the team all the time.”

Pecora sees the decent stat lines Tuesday from seniors Miklos Szabo (12 points and seven rebounds in a season-high 32 minutes) and Cornelius Vines (17 points, including four 3-pointers) as well as an inspired second half from Greg Washington (four points and four blocks, including two on consecutive possessions). Such performances hint at a greater potential, but Pecora wonders where these efforts have been all season and why the Dutchmen must be in crisis mode before his veterans can produce like this.

“Is that what it takes? To be down to get [them to play well?]” Pecora said. “That’s a very immature way to play basketball. That’s what I’m concerned about—the maturity of them and the leadership of these veterans.”

He sees another performance from Nathaniel Lester (eight points and seven rebounds) that looks a lot better in print than it did in person. Lester made his first two shots Tuesday and then went 2-for-10 the rest of the way. He didn’t take a single free throw, was charged with five turnovers and played just 28 minutes on a night in which the Dutchmen were thinner than they’ve been all season.

Pecora was answering a question about Szabo and Washington when he uttered the following words, but they apply as much to Lester as anybody else: “When you become a junior and you get an opportunity to be a starter, then the thing you should bring to the floor is consistent play at a very high level. And I’m searching for that out of all of our veterans.”

Even Charles Jenkins, who had 23 points and seven assists but also shot just 7-of-18 from the field and committed seven turnovers. “As a leader, I’m disappointed in myself,” a sullen-looking Jenkins said. “It’s about winning. It’s not about anything else.”

More than halfway through the season, though, “anything else” is happening as often as winning.

“We’re beyond excuses,” Pecora said. “We are what we are right now. We’re a .500 team, we’re 2-4 in the conference and we better find a way to win our next one. And that’s what it comes down to and that’s what college basketball season are about. Win or lose, the next morning—or late that night if you’re not sleeping—you get up and start watching tape and you just think about the next one. And then you think about the next one.

“And in March—hopefully late March—you look back and say ‘What kind of year did we have?’ That’s got to be our mindset as a group. You’re in survival mode. That’s how mature basketball teams look at it.”

But is that how the Dutchmen will look at it?

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. VCU, 1/12)
3: Charles Jenkins
2: Miklos Szabo
1: Cornelius Vines

Charles Jenkins 30
Chaz Williams 18
Nathaniel Lester 18
Halil Kanacevic 17
Miklos Szabo 9
Cornelius Vines 9
Greg Washington 8

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