Monday, March 14, 2011

This time, Hofstra goes to Indiana for the CBI (Or: Everything you ever wanted to know about Evansville but were afraid to ask!)

Don Mattingly (left) grew his first pair of sideburns in Evansville!

A year ago this week, the Flying Dutchmen hosted Indiana University Purdue Indianapolis—which I referred to by its real name for a very valid reason, but which I will never again refer to as anything other than IUPUI—in the College Basketball Invitational even though their RPI (145) was almost twice as high as IUPUI’s (83) and even though they lost in the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament while IUPUI reached the Summit League championship game.

Whether IUPUI was that much better than the Dutchmen, or whether the Jaguars were honked off they had to travel halfway across the country and played with a purpose or whether the Dutchmen were out of gas after a frantic second half and completely uninspired playing in front of 17 people (OK, fine it was “952”), I don’t know, but IUPUI won 74-60 and it wasn’t anywhere near that close.

The Dutchmen have to hope history repeats itself as they prepare to return to the CBI by visiting Evansville—that’s the third-largest city in Indiana, according to Wikipedia, as well as the birth place of Don Mattingly, according to the baseball cards of my youth!—for a first round game Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Dutchmen are hitting the road even though they entered Sunday with an RPI of 86, lost to eventual CAA champion Old Dominion in the conference tournament and will enter the CBI with a 21-11 mark. Evansville, meanwhile, has an RPI of 136, lost to eventual Missouri Valley champion Indiana State in the quarterfinals and is 15-15 this year.

Adding to the irony that is not really irony: Evansville led for most of its quarterfinal game against Indiana State before losing in the final seconds. The Dutchmen, of course, led Northeastern for most of last year’s CAA quarterfinal tilt before the Huskies forced overtime with a last-second shot and won by three points in double overtime.

And like the Dutchmen last year, Evansville—whose nickname is Purple Aces, no idea if they divide up into the shirts and the blouses during intrasquad scrimmages—announced immediately it would like to play in the CBI. However, unlike Tom Pecora’s final Hofstra squad—which entered the CBI with 10 wins in its previous 12 games—Evansville stumbled to the finish line by suffering a four-game losing streak near the end of the conference season and dropping six of its final eight overall. Still, it was an impressive season for the Purple Aces, who were picked to finish last in the 10-team Missouri Valley but finished sixth, their best performance in 10 years.

We’ll have more on the game later today and tomorrow, but a quick look indicates the similarities in the matchup go well beyond the circumstances. Like the Dutchmen, Evansville suffered six losses this season by 14 points or more. But both teams were successful in tight contests: The Dutchmen were 8-3 in games decided by six points or less while the Purple Aces were 8-5.

Each team was smoked by North Carolina, but each team also has a Signature Win over a recent mid-major Final Four darling: The Purple Aces beat Butler, 71-68, at Butler on Nov. 27 while the Dutchmen of course beat George Mason 87-74 on Jan. 5.

The Dutchmen play really well on the road (10-4) while Evansville is quite good at home (12-3). And Evansville has its own version of Charles Jenkins in sophomore Colt Ryan, whose 15.8 ppg are almost twice as much as the Purple Aces’ second-leading scorer.

Some quick facts about Evansville's program in general: Head coach Marty Simmons played at Evansville and, as a senior, finished sixth in the country in scoring at 25.9 ppg and helped the Purple Aces to the program’s first Division I postseason win in the 1988 NIT. Simmons was an assistant when Evansville for 11 seasons from 1990 through 2002, during which the Purple Aces reached the NCAA Tournament three times and the NIT once. Unrelated to hoops, but most remarkable of all, Simmons lost 135 pounds between the end of last season and the start of this year and shed another 15 pounds during the season.

Evansville is 2-8 all-time in the postseason at Division I (another uncanny similarity: Hofstra is 2-9). The program’s most famous alum is Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan, who was a three-time All-American at Evansville and led the Purple Aces to two of their five Division II national championships.

The Purple Aces just completed their 55th and final season at Roberts Municipal Stadium, which seats 11,600, and will move into a downtown arena next year. The CBI game will be held at Southern Indiana’s PAC Gymnasium, a 3,300-seat facility, because Roberts is booked all week with—we kid you not—Disney on Ice.

Oh and the Purple Aces actually have a FLYING DUTCHMAN on their team! Starting center Pieter van Tongeren, who stands 6-foot-10, is from the Netherlands. Presumably the one across the Atlantic Ocean and not the one across Oak Street.

This will be the first-ever meeting between Hofstra and Evansville and only the fifth time the Dutchmen will face a current member of the Missouri Valley. Not surprisingly, all five games have come in tournament settings. Hofstra won its lone meetings with Wichita State (at the Puerto Rico Shootout in 1997), Southern Illinois (at the Pittsburgh Classic in 1976) and has split with Illinois State (beat the Redbirds at the University Hoops Classic in—holy smokes!—Pittsburgh in 2001, lost at the Carrier Classic at LeMoyne in upstate New York in 1979).

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