Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's beginning to feel a lot like basketball season...

The 2010-11 Flying Dutchmen basketball schedule: More fun than a BB gun, and safer too!

It’s still hot out, hurricanes are the biggest weather worry and kids of all ages are heading back to school. But it feels a little like Christmas because the 2010-11 Flying Dutchmen basketball schedule is finally out.

(Good thing I’m not this late when it comes to actual Christmas. “Hey honey Happy New Year! Here are your Christmas presents! Oh but you just came back from your Mom’s!” Sorry for the delay, paying work was on the front burner the last few days)

Anyway, like any pesky little kid, we’ve already got an idea of what we’re getting. We carefully slid our fingers under the wrapping that covered the Farmingdale game. And the Wagner game. And the Binghamton game. And the Florida Atlantic game. And the Manhattan game. And the Iona game. And the UNC Wilmington games. And the Old Dominion game. And we know what that big box is—that’s the North Carolina game! Mom and Dad worked hard to save for that one.

But as awesome as it will be to play with our UNC toy, what we really wanted to know the bulk of the CAA schedule. Because, as always, it doesn’t matter if Hofstra goes unbeaten in the non-conference schedule, it’s not going anywhere if it doesn’t win the conference.

Finally, we have our answers. And as I sit here, in my pajamas surrounded by wrapping paper, I have to say, it’s a pretty good haul. The CAA schedule looks much friendlier, from a travel and pacing perspective, than a year ago. But first let’s discuss the non-conference schedule, which is both encouraging and discouraging.

It’s encouraging because it looks like a schedule with a lot of winnable games that should give the Dutchmen confidence heading into January. And as I wrote last week, it’s great from a travel perspective—with the exception of the Puerto Rico games, every one is within easy driving distance.

But it’s also discouraging because, aside from the Puerto Rico Classic, this looks nothing like the big-time mid-major schedule the Dutchmen put together last year. The usual warnings about how one year is not always an accurate predictor of the next, especially in college basketball, apply.

Still, judging by how the seven non-conference, non-Puerto Rico Classic opponents fared last season, this non-conference schedule is about as unimposing as the oft-maligned 2008-09 non-conference slate. Only one of those games is against a school that finished in the top 100 in the RPI last year (Iona, 21-10 with an 89 RPI). Only one other team finished with a winning record and in the top 200, and the Dutchmen are playing Rider (17-16, 140 RPI) only because it’s the back end of a Bracket Buster home-and-home.

Now, Iona should be very good with a veteran team under new coach and Hofstra product Tim Cluess, Wagner will be a lot better than 5-26 under Danny Hurley and Binghamton may not need walk-ons to field a team. But still, this is not going to satisfy those who thought Tom Pecora played too weak a non-conference schedule.

That said, I get why it’s the non-conference looks this light. Like two years ago, Charles Jenkins is the one certainty on a roster filled with question marks (though the Dutchmen can count on Greg Washington as a sure-fire starter). This is going to be a team that needs to build confidence and find its identity during November and December and create some momentum heading into the CAA schedule. It’ll do the Dutchmen no good to play a Northeastern-type OOC, get hammered and go into January at 3-9.

And it would REALLY do Mo Cassara no good. There’s plenty to be optimistic about regarding Cassara, but it’s seasons like these that turned the term “trial by fire” into a cliché. A year ago at this time, he was the third assistant. Now he’s the head cheese. It’s fair to expect a learning curve and lots of trial and error as Cassara gets used to the job. The best way to do that is with some winnable games, not by trying to boost the RPI for an at-large bid that will never come.

Still, this is something to keep an eye on. We’ll have more hypotheses about the non-conference schedule and what it may mean for the future of the men’s basketball program later in the week.

As for the CAA portion of the sked: The most notable thing is how fair it is to the Dutchmen. Indeed, I think the Southern Bias Coalition must have been burning up the phone lines trying to buy tickets to “So You Think You Can Dance” tour when it came time to screw Hofstra.

Unlike last year, the Dutchmen will get a chance to get their sea legs under them before embarking upon the Hempstead-to-Virginia shuttle. The Dutchmen, who host Towson in the look-but-don’t-touch CAA opener Dec. 4, open 2011 by visiting Drexel Jan. 3 before hosting George Mason Jan. 5. Oh boy, I can’t wait for that one! When it comes to three-in-six, the Dutchmen can’t ask for much more than two road games against rebuilding teams and a home contest against a squad that was hilariously immature last year.

The Dutchmen’s first back-to-back set of road games is at NAC foes Northeastern and Towson Jan. 8 and Jan. 12, after which they get consecutive home games against Old Dominion and UNC Wilmington. The latter game marks the beginning of a seven-game span in which the Dutchmen alternate home games with Virginia trips from Jan. 19 through Feb. 5. They’ll follow up the home game against Northeastern with a road trip to Georgia State and Delaware. There will be plenty of travel in February, which the Dutchmen end with a road Bracket Buster game and a trek to Wilmington before hosting Delaware in the Senior Day finale (Delaware to end the regular season—that’s the way it should be)

That’s a challenge, but nothing like the one the Dutchmen faced last January, when their first eight games went like this: William & Mary, at George Mason, Towson, at Old Dominion, VCU, at William & Mary, George Mason, at Drexel. The Dutchmen’s late-season run was fueled by better health but it’s no coincidence they got hot once the travel schedule got less rigorous.

It’s a good thing I’m not a conspiracy theorist or else I’d wonder if the departure of Pecora—who was never shy about telling CAA schedule makers, in the saltiest language possible, just how he felt about their efforts—had something to do with the Dutchmen’s draw. Nahhhhh.

The unbalanced CAA schedule also tips in the Dutchmen’s favor this year, when they are scheduled to play ODU, VCU and James Madison—three teams likely to be picked among the top four come October—just once apiece. Two of those games (ODU and Madison) will be in Hempstead.

The Dutchmen will need a few things to go right to exceed expectations and grab the first-round bye that seemed such a certainty before all hell broke loose in March and April. This schedule appears to give them the best possible shot at entering January feeling good about itself and sustaining those happy vibes for the February stretch run.

At least that’s what I think in September. If my optimism proves unwarranted, I reserve the right to wail about how unfair this all is and to demand I take back these Christmas presents.

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