Monday, January 3, 2011

And away we go!

POW! BAM! TO THE CAA TITLE! Get on the bus, Charles Jenkins is driving us to Monday night in Richmond!

Charles Jenkins, old soul, spent his final New Years Eve as a college basketball player alone in his room watching the annual “Honeymooners” marathon on Channel 11, a vision which generates the type of clichéd ledes we are doing our very best to ignore.

But ringing in 2011 in decidedly low-key fashion was an indicator of how focused Jenkins is on his last lap around the track, which begins in earnest tonight when the Dutchmen visit Drexel as CAA play resumes. The grand plan—Jenkins surrounded by experienced players as he tries to lead the Dutchmen to the NCAA Tournament as a senior—fell apart spectacularly last spring and summer, and the lopsided loss to Iona last Wednesday was the harshest reminder yet that the Dutchmen will only go as far as Jenkins can take them.

Jenkins alluded to as much after he took just three shots in the first half of the 87-62 pasting at the hands of Iona, saying he’ll never be passive in the first half again. Several days of rigorous, boot camp-like practices have only reinforced that belief for Jenkins and Mo Cassara alike. In fact, upon hearing Jenkins asked Sunday if he’s looking to take a game over from the opening tap, Cassara said “He better.”

That doesn’t mean playing 1-on-5, but the days of Jenkins sitting back and hoping the rest of the remarkably lean and inexperienced Dutchmen can mature on their own are over. Jenkins and fellow senior Greg Washington have played in a combined 209 games while the rest of the roster has combined to play in 139 games.

For the Dutchmen to contend, Jenkins has to be involved with every play. “Keep moving, be more aggressive—he’s got a target on his back now all the time,” Cassara said. “And the minute he stands or the minute he watches, he becomes guardable. When he’s moving and he’s on the move and we’re moving, he’s as tough a guy to guard as there is in the country.”

“Not necessarily selfish,” Jenkins said of his mindset. “Just more aggressive. My guys get more open shots when I’m aggressive. I create better plays for myself when I’m aggressive.”

Still, while Jenkins finally has a legitimate wingman in Mike Moore (17.3 ppg in December, up from 11.3 ppg in November) and possible 3-point specialists in Shemiye McLendon and Brad Kelleher (their 0-for-15 performance Wednesday notwithstanding) the hunch here is the more Jenkins scores, the better the Dutchmen will fare.

Keep this in mind: Jenkins begins play tonight 620 points shy of David Robinson, the leading scorer in CAA history. The closer he gets to breaking Robinson’s record (and he’d have to average 33 points per game in the 19 games the Dutchmen are guaranteed to play in order to surpass Robinson), the farther the Dutchmen get in March.

Whether he averages 33 or 23 the rest of the way, the honeymoon period is over for Jenkins (Booo! There’s that cliché) and the Dutchmen. With less than three months left in his career, it’s time for Jenkins to heed the advice of everyone from Cassara and Tom Pecora to Mike Jarvis and, at some level anyway, shed his unselfish ways and simply allow his talent to take over.

“This is my team,” Jenkins said. “I can’t be experimenting anymore, always saying that ‘we’re going to get better, we’re going to get better.’ We have to get better. Me being a senior, I have to have a sense of urgency, I have to be ready to attack and do whatever it takes night in and night out. And that’s something I plan on doing come conference play.”


So how will conference play turn out? I’ve long believed that at least one of the consensus top four—Old Dominion, VCU, James Madison and George Mason—would fall out and that Hofstra would slide in there and grab the ever-valuable first round bye. Since the CAA expanded in 2001-02, no team that played on Friday has won it all on Monday.

I can’t lie: I don’t feel as strongly about Hofstra grabbing that spot today as I did in November. Part of it is Drexel’s surprising preseason run. But the Dutchmen are even leaner now than we thought they’d be in October.

With Nathaniel Lester still sidelined and big men Roland Brown and Paul Bilbo and walk-on Matt Grogan seeing little time, everything has to go right just for the Dutchmen to have a nine-man rotation every night. And when players are sick (as Dwan McMillan and Yves Jules were Wednesday) and unable to hit water from a boat (as Kelleher and McLendon were Wednesday), well, it can get ugly, and visions of a 2007-08 replay—when the leading scorer in school history finished his career with a 12-18 season—begin dancing in my head.

But I am telling you, even if Hofstra doesn’t finish in the top four, I see Jenkins carrying the Dutchmen to the first Monday night of March and at least giving himself a shot to win that invitation to March Madness. He’s the best player, by far, in the conference, and the urgency of his senior season and the specter of his legacy will fuel him like never before. He needs some help: He needs Moore to continue channeling Norman Richardson, for Washington to begin his annual February surge tonight and for David Imes to shake off the first slump of his career. Jenkins also needs the Dutchmen to be the defensive team they were before Christmas, not afterward.

There will be some frightful moments along the way—hell, maybe even this week, with three tough games in six days. But if Jenkins could carry the incredibly flawed 2008-09 team to 21 wins, well, he can do even more here. See you in Richmond nine weeks from tonight. And maybe even thereafter.

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