Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Five pre-game thoughts: UNC Wilmington

1.) This is one of those games sportswriters love because it features storylines that, in the end, don’t really impact the game. That’s not some smarmy, holier-than-thou knock—I eat up stuff like this, even if it is mostly irrelevant to what happens on the court tonight. The last time Hofstra hosted UNC Wilmington, the Flying Dutchmen destroyed the Seahawks 93-54 in a game highlighted by the first eight-point play in the history of humanity. As outstanding UNCW beat writer Brian Mull writes here, that embarrassing loss set into motion a chain of events that may have saved UNCW basketball. Coach Benny Moss was fired the next day, but the Seahawks didn’t really begin turning themselves around until Buzz Peterson was hired as head coach following a tumultuous and often borderline amateurish search and oft-maligned athletic director Kelly Mehrtens “resigned” on Sept. 27.

Like UNC Wilmington, Hofstra endured an embarrassing off-season in which it appeared to be losing relevancy by the day, especially in a conference in which the power seems to be shifting towards the schools that play football and/or are located within Virginia. But the third head coach in a matter of weeks also proved to be the charm for Hofstra, and Mo Cassara has done for the Dutchmen what Peterson has done for the Seahawks—bury the past and put into place a rebuilding/reconstruction (Mull’s wording) plan that is moving far faster and turning out much better than anyone could have anticipated. While the Dutchmen are, of course, tied for first place at 5-1, the Seahawks—a consensus pick to finish at or near the bottom of the CAA—are 3-3 and nowhere near a pushover.

2.) There is at least one similarity between the schools that will factor into tonight’s game. Like Hofstra, UNC Wilmington lost multiple players to transfers during the hiccup-filled coaching search, including their best big man. As a result, both teams are led by star senior guards who had little choice but to weather the storm and have vastly improved their already impressive games in order to shoulder the burden as seniors. You, of course, know about Charles Jenkins, who better be referred to as a power guard multiple times tonight by Mull. But Chad Tomko (honest to God, I wrote Brett the first time—I watch too much baseball) has been tremendous in sparking the Seahawks’ surprise run. In five games leading up to last Saturday’s loss to JMU, Tomko averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while fashioning an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.25. While sophomore big man Keith Rendelman (9.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) has been their David Imes (hey! another similarity!) the Seahawks will only go as far as Tomko can take them.

3.) Speaking of Jenkins, he’s going to have a big game. The power guard loves facing the Seahawks, against whom he is averaging 24.9 points per game in seven career contests. Plus, he’s due: Jenkins has “only” scored 19 points in each of the Dutchmen’s last two games and had one of his quieter efforts of the season in the loss to Old Dominion Saturday. He doesn’t have back-to-back bad games.

4.) This game will be decided beyond the 3-point arc. UNCW is shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point land and the Dutchmen are hitting their 3-pointers at a 37.6 percent clip. The Dutchmen have been ice cold from deep in their last two games, shooting just 23 percent (9-of-39) in the win over Towson and the loss to Old Dominion. The Dutchmen have also been a bit lax defensively in allowing three of their last six opponents to shoot at least 37.5 percent from 3-point land. Either Shemiye McLendon or Brad Kelleher will have to step up and hit a handful of treys and expect to see plenty of defensive specialist Yves Jules as Cassara tries to limit the damage done by the Seahawks.

4b.) Your good friend and mine Mike Litos beat us to the punch in predicting a big game from Imes. Getting a double-double from Imes—or another near triple-double from Greg Washington, who had 14 points, 10 blocked shots and eight rebounds in the rout of Wilmington at Hofstra last year—will go a long way towards locking up a victory against a Seahawks squad that is even leaner in the frontcourt than the Dutchmen.

5.) My (ample) gut tells me Cassara is not terribly disappointed the Dutchmen failed to carry a perfect CAA record into this tilt. As awesome as the 5-0 start—and the accompanying publicity—was, the truth is the Dutchmen have much less margin for error than the rest of their brethren near or at the top of the CAA. I firmly believe Cassara, Jenkins and Washington would never allow the Dutchmen to believe their press clippings, so to speak, but allowing the buzz to subside a little bit after the ODU loss surely helped the Dutchmen refocus on the tasks at hand and reinforce the belief that they must work harder than everyone else in order to stay in the race. Four practice days between games is a rarity during the CAA season so I imagine you’ll see a determined and well-rested team tonight ready to resume the grunt work that got them this far.

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