Wednesday, March 3, 2010

As seniors, Szabo and Vines turn this thing around

Cornelius Vines and Miklos Szabo take one more trip into the Lions Den following the Flying Dutchmen's 87-73 win over Georgia State on Senior Day Saturday. Photo by Sean M. Gates/The Chronicle.

Senior Day at Hofstra Arena was a seemingly routine affair Saturday, when Miklos Szabo and Cornelius Vines proceeded right from a moving pre-game ceremony into the starting lineup and went on to contribute to the Flying Dutchmen’s convincing 87-73 win over Georgia State.

Both players left the court in the second half to a warm ovation—Vines did so while blowing kisses to all corners of the Arena—and took one last trip over to the Lions Den after the final buzzer to thank the students for their support. At his post-game press conference, Tom Pecora spoke fondly of Szabo and Vines and said the Dutchmen’s success would not have been possible without them.

But Pecora knew better than anyone how the path to a textbook Senior Day was a grueling one—for Szabo and Vines as well as himself—and how such a festive afternoon seemed inconceivable just weeks earlier, when Szabo and Vines were occupying Pecora’s doghouse as the Dutchmen’s season threatened to splinter apart.

“There’s a quote, some coaching quote [from] Tom Coughlin,” Pecora said Saturday. “‘Coaching is making guys do what they don’t want to do so they can be what they want to be.’ And that’s something I talk to my staff about and the players about all the time. It’s our job to get you out of your comfort zone, because very few people are self-motivated enough to make themselves great. They have to have somebody behind them pushing them.”

The process of pushing Szabo and Vines out of their comfort zones and into the roles Pecora expected them to fill turned into one of the biggest challenges of Pecora’s career. Pecora demands leadership out of his seniors, no matter how many years they have been part of the program. To cull that out of junior college transfers such as Szabo and Vines—who comprised the least-experienced senior class of the Pecora Era—was a particularly delicate exercise, especially given their drastically different personalities.

Szabo’s natural shyness is compounded by his self-consciousness over the age and language differences between he and the rest of his teammates. Szabo turns 24 in August and is a full five years older than freshmen Halil Kanacevic and Paul Bilbo.

“It’s kind of hard for me, since I’m not an American, I’m not from here, I’m doing things different than the other kids,” Szabo said last Friday. “So it’s a little bit hard for me to be a leader, because I don’t really have too much in common with the guys. We’re good friends and stuff, but the freshmen sometimes just don’t listen to me because I’m like an outsider.”

Vines is actually a few months older than Szabo (he turns 24 in June), but his gregariousness makes it far easier for him to interact as a peer with the younger Dutchmen. Yet he arrived at Hofstra having never been part of a team where he had to do anything other than shoot the ball as often as he wanted.

As this season began, Pecora told Vines he needed him to shoot less, involve his teammates more and concentrate on defending the opposition’s best guard. But while Pecora wanted Vines to smoothen out some of his edges, he needed the opposite to happen with Szabo, who rarely looked last season like the player who led the junior college ranks in rebounding during his sophomore season at Broward Community College.

“I had a conversation with him one time and I remember saying ‘Mike, if my son Sean can grow up and be as good a man as you are, I’d be thrilled,’” Pecora said last week. “‘But if he was a basketball player and he played the way you’re playing, I would tell him to stop playing basketball. And he’d be a great kid that didn’t play basketball. You have all this talent. I just want you to go out and play with a little passion and a ferocity and you’re really going to help this team win.’”

For weeks—months, even—it seemed as if Pecora, Szabo and Vines could never get in sync. Flashes of brilliance by both players were followed up by frustrating bursts of near-invisibility. Szabo played perhaps his best game in a Hofstra uniform in the CAA opener against Towson Dec. 5, when he racked up a career-high 22 points and added eight rebounds, but he played fewer than 10 minutes in four of the Dutchmen’s next six games and briefly lost his starting job in early January.

Vines drained six 3-pointers in the near-upset of UConn on Nov. 17 but hit just 12 treys in his next eight games and lost his starting job after producing an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2/6 over a three-game span. “I just couldn’t buy a basket at the beginning of the year,” Vines said last Friday. “I was in a little bit of a funk. I went to the bench. When that happens, that just takes some stuff out of you and you start thinking ‘What am I doing wrong? What do I have to do to get right, to get my stuff together?’”

Szabo began working his way back into Pecora’s good graces in mid-January and is shooting 57 percent (45-for-79) since returning to the starting lineup Jan. 12. He’s had at least five rebounds in 12 of his last 16 games after recording five or more boards just six times in the first 15 games.

“It’s basketball—you’ve always got a chance,” Szabo said. “We’ve got a chance every practice to prove ourselves. We’re fighting it out [in] practice, fighting for positions.”

But while Szabo was racking up a double-double against George Mason Jan. 19. Vines was being benched at halftime for telling Pecora he had no confidence in his shot. Vines sat the next game against Drexel with a knee injury as the Dutchmen were routed by the Dragons to fall to 2-7 in conference.

“I love this game, and for it to be taken away from me a couple times this year really hurt,” Vines said. “I went back to my room and cried a couple times. I told myself ‘I can’t cry no more about it. It’s time to man up and do what I’ve got to do.’ And I learned a lot.”

Like Szabo, Vines earned his way back into the starting lineup in practice, and Pecora encouraged him by once again flashing the green light. Pecora told Vines before the game at UNC Wilmington Feb. 13 that he owed him the nearly 40 3-pointers Vines needed to reach his total from last season.

Vines responded by hitting a school-record tying seven 3-pointers against the Seahawks and has hit 22 3-pointers in his last five games—as many 3-pointers as he had in the preceding 18 games dating back to Dec. 5. He has also reached double figures in each of his last five games after scoring as many as 10 points in just seven of his first 25 games.

For Vines, the roller coaster senior season is an appropriate finale to a fascinating college career that has been as much about personal discovery as anything that has happened on the court.  While at Hofstra, Vines has begun to establish a relationship with his father, with whom he was estranged in high school, and Vines was joined by his Dad as well as his mother and grandmother during Senior Day festivities Saturday.

“He’s been coming to a lot of games this year, so it’s exciting to see him [and] we’re trying to build a bond,” Vines said. “Growing up was interesting. My Mom was my Dad and my father probably made it to see me play in high school probably twice, three times at the most."

Vines had a scholarship offer to Hartford coming out of Henninger High School in Syracuse but didn’t have the grades to get into the America East school. He went to Globe Institute of Technology in Manhattan—the same JUCO that Darren Townes attended—but left after one semester in which he rarely attended class. He ended up at Iowa Lakes Community College, where, as he told the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2008, “…the biggest building was as tall as me.”

Vines didn’t land at Hofstra until late in the spring of 2008, and he remains grateful to Pecora for being secure enough to handle an emotional player who admits he can annoy opposing players, coaches and fans.

“I always play with confidence, I always play with a swagger—the only one that can take that away from me is me,” Vines said. “I’m always smiling. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m gonna talk smack. It’s just how I play basketball. Some people may look at it like he’s ignorant or whatever, but that’s just how I’ve been playing the game since I’ve been [young]."

Said Pecora: “I remember this, watching as a young coach and seeing a kid behave in a certain fashion. And you’d say ‘How can a coach let him do that?’ When you’re a young coach, you’re so worried about what will people [think], will they be afraid I don’t have control of my program? And then after you do this for 20 years, you realize, hey, I know I’ve got control of my program.”

Pecora proved as much in February, finally eliciting from Szabo and Vines the type of leadership and performance he needed and turning their experience at Hofstra into a positive one when it very easily could have become a forgettable disappointment for all involved.

“I personally believe that college is just a means to get to where you want to get,” Szabo said. “I enjoyed my two years at Hofstra. I liked playing basketball over here, I tried to get the best out of it I could and I liked it.”

“Today being the last regular season practice on the floor, it is sad, but it’s exciting,” Vines said. “I came far. Whoever would think, from where I came from, that I’d be playing Division I basketball?”

“I think they’ve both done a very, very good job and I’m really proud of both of them,” Pecora said last week. “They’ll be part of this whole thing. When we recruit kids, we tell them ‘It’s not about four years it’s about 40 years.’ With JUCO kids, it’s not about two years, it’s not about 20 years. They’re in it for 40 years, too.”

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