Mo Cassara’s first appearance in the post-game interview room sounded so familiar, one had to wonder if it wasn’t part of an elaborate ruse. Here’s the new coach talking about how he vocally expressed his displeasure at halftime…and how the Flying Dutchmen had to perform better on defense and on the boards…and how taking care of the basketball is the most important job for a point guard…and how the Hofstra squad that takes the court after New Year’s Day will be better than the one we see beforehand.
Haven’t we heard this all before? This doesn’t sound like the new guy. It sounds like—oh my God IT’S TOM PECORA AND HE’S JUST RIPPED OFF HIS MO CASSARA MASK!!! I NEVER SAW THIS COMING!!!
As it turns out, that was really Cassara speaking, and he wasn’t channeling Pecora to pay homage to his predecessor but to indicate how much room the Dutchmen have for improvement after an inconsistent 76-62 win Sunday over Division II Molloy College in front of a CBI-sized crowd at the Arena.
The Dutchmen took the lead for good less than three minutes into the game but didn’t take a double digit lead for good until there were less than seven minutes to play as the Dutchmen often struggled to find a rhythm against Molloy’s zone defense.
“We got a little tentative,” Cassara said. “Credit goes to Molloy, their coaching staff and their team. They did a good job of slowing the tempo down and making us get a little tight.”
More notably, Molloy outrebounded the Dutchmen 37-34 even though the Lions received just 38 minutes from players taller than 6-foot-5. The Dutchmen had just two offensive rebounds in the first half, when Molloy not only stayed close by outscoring the Dutchmen 22-12 in the paint but also provided the fodder for Cassara’s halftime speech, which, you can be certain, had nothing to do with old school rap.
“We gave up some easy shots,” Cassara said. “My big concern, where we have to get better, is defense. We have to become a more defense-oriented team.”
The Dutchmen responded to Cassara’s scolding with 11 offensive rebounds in the second half. “Phenomenal halftime speech by me,” Cassara said with a grin. “I got after a couple of our front court guys—mainly Mike [Moore], David [Imes] and Greg [Washington] because they just simply weren’t going to the offensive glass.”
Still, Cassara was concerned that the Dutchmen’s leading rebounder was freshman Stephen Nwaukoni, who had eight boards in just 12 minutes. Washington had six rebounds, three blocks and three steals, but didn’t take a single free throw. Sophomore David Imes scored 12 points and showed flashes of filling the offensive void left by the departure of Halil Kanacevic in going to the line a team-high six times but he had just four rebounds—two on each end of the floor.
“I thought Steven Nwaukoni did a terrific job, and what he does well, he did tonight,” Cassara said. “He’s a strong body, he rebounds. He really was a presence in here and I think he ultimately got in there and gave us a little bit of a lift and challenged our more veteran front court guys to really start playing harder.”
There were bursts of impressive efficiency on offense, particularly from Charles Jenkins and point guard Dwan McMillan. Jenkins had his usual overflowing stat line—a game-high 24 points as well as five steals, four rebounds and four assists—and McMillan had eight assists, including seven in the first half, and just one turnover. McMillan didn’t score from the field until there was 5:03 left but capped three fast breaks with layups in a span of 101 seconds to highlight a 14-3 run that ended any hopes of a Molloy upset.
“The number I look at and my big challenge to Dwan is value the basketball,” Cassara said. “I’ve told our team from day one that if we value the basketball and get a good shot every time down the court, we’re going to win our share of games.
“Eight assists and one turnover, that’s the kind of numbers that we need from him consistently. There don’t have to be that many assists, but the lower number of turnovers is what’s really important for me.”
Mike Moore finished with 14 points and provided his own bit of nostalgic channeling in Cornelius Vines’ old no. 23: He opened the game by scoring the Dutchmen’s first six points, but he missed his next eight shots—including six from 3-point land—and went scoreless from the field for more than 30 minutes.
Brad Kelleher, freed momentarily from the NCAA gulag, scored eight points and was 2-of-5 from 3-point land before the Clearinghouse ordered him off the court for having a fantasy football team. (I made that up. Or did I?)
Kelleher played 17 minutes, most among the non-starters, and Moore was the only starter to play less than 30 minutes due to some early foul trouble. Getting such an extended look at the Dutchmen, getting his starters ready for a big workload—no easy task considering Imes saw limited duty as a freshman, Moore sat out last year as a transfer and McMillan was in junior college—and identifying strengths and weaknesses in a game setting was the real goal for Cassara.
“We’ve got some good tape to show them tomorrow that we’ve got a long way to go,” Cassara said. “We’re still a work in progress. We’ve got a lot of new faces, a whole new coaching staff, so we’re not going to be great at some things right now My big thing for this team is to get better every day, and I think this is going to be a very different team come late December and January and moving into the real CAA season, where I think we’re going to get better and better.”