The Flying Dutchmen enter today’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic opener against no. 8 North Carolina—that’s right, I’m playing nice with Tar Heel Nation and not assuming a win in print, though in my head I am already planning riot routes and wondering if I should start off naked or shed my clothes throughout, I’m leaning towards the former—in the unique position of being a bit top heavy when it comes to experience in games against nationally ranked and renowned competition.
Mo Cassara was on the Boston College staff when the Eagles went into Chapel Hill Jan. 4, 2009 and never trailed in shocking the top-ranked and previously unbeaten Tar Heels, 85-78. Assistant Wayne Morgan was on Jim Boeheim’s staff for two national championship games at Syracuse while fellow assistant Allen Griffin played in four NCAA Tournaments during his Orangemen career.
Charles Jenkins scored 23 points in the Dutchmen’s season-opening loss at top-ranked Kansas last year and followed that up a mere four days later by scoring a game-high 25 points and nearly leading Hofstra to an upset win over no. 12 UConn in Storrs. And Mike Moore had the best game of his two-year Fordham career when he had his lone double-double (24 points, 10 rebounds) against 14th-ranked Xavier Feb. 14, 2009.
Other than that, though, the Dutchmen have little to no experience against high-profile opponents. Of the eight players who got into the game last year against Kansas, only three—Jenkins, Greg Washington and Yves Jules—will suit up today. Six of the 11 players who will be in uniform today, including Moore, will be participating in only their second game at Hofstra and their first against a Division I opponent.
It’s the hoops equivalent of a band debuting in a club and playing its second gig in an arena. But the task for Cassara and Jenkins is to get the Dutchmen to resist thinking in such terms and approach North Carolina with philosophies preached by coaches and underdogs since the beginning of time.
“The difference between the mid-majors and the high majors is that the guys are a little bit more athletic, talent-wise,” Jenkins said. “But at the same time, coach always said they put their clothes on just like us.”
“One of the biggest things I learned from [Boston College head coach] Al Skinner is you don’t want to treat it differently than any other game,” Cassara said. “If you make it way too big a deal, then you’re going to set them up for not being successful. I think we want to try and do everything we’re going to do for every game.”
Of course, even Cassara and Jenkins know this is not every game. North Carolina has won five national titles, made a record 27 straight NCAA Tournament appearances through the 2000-01 season and is one of just two schools with 2,000 wins.
The Tar Heels’ roster features six players who played in the McDonald’s All-Star Game as high schoolers. Their first-year players include Harrison Barnes, the first freshman ever selected to the AP’s All-American team.
But while Cassara is quick to remind the Dutchmen of the rare opportunity they have this weekend in general and this afternoon in particular, he also knows any chance they have of pulling off the monumental upset rests on spending no time marveling at the Tar Heels’ talent or tradition.
“I think [the Tip-Off Classic] is incredibly valuable—I think it’s an opportunity for us to travel together, to get into a hotel, to be in a different arena, a neutral site, play against some very good teams and ultimately learn how to compete under pressure and against teams that have great size and height and length and traditions,” Cassara said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to do all those things.
“But we’re going to approach it just like any other game. We’re going to go out there and execute the way we want to execute and then, ultimately, if we do execute our game plan and play the way we need to play, then we’ll have an opportunity to win.”