Saturday, November 26, 2011

Postgame Buffet: Rhode Island 85, Hofstra 73 (Or: Why is URI bringing me down, man?)

Believe it or not, this fits into the season-long theme of recap subtitles. Ha! Enjoy that hint, Loyal Reader Missy!

There aren’t many losses by double digits that will leave a coach feeling reasonably good about his team. But given the disaster that seemed to be unfolding for the Flying Dutchmen midway through the first half of their game against Rhode Island Friday afternoon, Mo Cassara was borderline upbeat after the 85-73 loss in a Ticket City Legends sub-regional in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island was in the midst of a 16-0 run before the first TV timeout of the game and led 37-18 at the under-8 stoppage. But the Dutchmen adapted to the Rams’ full court press defense, fixed their own defense a bit, got within four late in the first half and closed the gap to three points nine minutes into the second half before falling short yet avoiding the type of blowout defeat that was all-too-commonplace last season.

“I’m encouraged by a lot of things,” Cassara said by phone afterward. “I think [Rhode Island is] a very good team and they had to win that game. They’re 0-3 and they’re coming home and they’ve won 31 straight non-conference games at home. We got out of the gate slow and we talked about that, their press really bothered us. A lot of credit to our guys to fight back.”

Here’s the five post-game thoughts, including one on the debut of a player we’ve been waiting to see since 1994 (give or take 17 years):

1.) He’s not the first or second star of the game, but the most impressive and encouraging performance yesterday belonged to Bryant Crowder. Sure, most of that has to do with Crowder putting up a very solid line (13 points and six rebounds) in his debut after arriving at Hofstra with plenty of hype and then sitting out the first four games due to a coach’s decision, but the freakishly athletic 6-foot-10 Crowder looked like the type of center Hofstra hasn’t had since, well, ever. (Or at least since I started paying attention, which is all that matters #ESPNGeneration)

The most noteworthy thing about Crowder’s final line is how he put it together. He appeared headed for a Brad Kelleher-esque debut when he picked up three fouls in just five minutes in the first half, but in 13 second half minutes, Crowder had 11 points and all six of his rebounds. He had a couple dunks, including an alley-oop, that showed off his giant wingspan, which he also showed off when he was whistled (erroneously, we might add with a hearty chant of QUAHOG BIAS!!!) for goaltending on a resounding block of a T.J. Buchanan layup. Crowder displayed a polish under the basket, on both ends of the floor, that fellow big men Moussa Kone and Stephen Nwaukoni are still trying to attain.

Crowder’s presence in the middle was a major reason why the Dutchmen outrebounded Rhode Island 20-13 in the second half (they were outrebounded by the Rams 19-10 in the first half) and limited the hosts to just three offensive rebounds in the final 20 minutes.

Crowder is very raw, on and off the court, which is why it took him four games to make his debut. But if he can continue maturing, he has a chance to not only supplant Kone in the starting lineup but to develop into a big-time CAA center.

“His athleticism really presented itself and gives us another level of speed and quickness,” Cassara said. “He was able to get out and really [make] some aggressive moves to the basket, get some dunks and give us a little bit of life. He’s still got to work some dust off of not really playing, that was his first major college basketball game. He had a couple critical issues, a couple missed assignments that quite honestly he’s got to work out. He’s a little behind in that department.”

As for why Crowder was benched the first four games? “The only thing I’ll say publicly is it was strictly a coaches’ decision,” Cassara said. “And I felt over the last couple weeks that he started to make some progress doing what we expect him to do, on and off the court. He continues to do that, he can help us win games. And anybody that doesn’t do those things—I’m about building a program here, not just about winning games.”

2.) The Dutchmen turning a rout into a competitive defeat was the latest evidence of the depth and multiple options they lacked last year, when the Dutchmen won seven games in which they came back from double digit deficits yet also endured six losses in which they were beaten by at least 15 points. Conclusion: Charles Jenkins could do a lot, but the Dutchmen’s reliance on him also left them prone to the blowout defeat.

Nathaniel Lester, fresh off the worst shooting performance by a Hofstra player since the program joined the CAA, was far better Saturday in scoring 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting (including 7-of-11 inside the 3-point arc) while tying for the team lead with seven rebounds and two assists and adding a team-high three steals. He began the Dutchmen’s comeback attempt by scoring the Dutchmen’s first seven points following Rhode Island’s 16-0 run.

Mike Moore, meanwhile, nearly single-handedly brought the Dutchmen back by going on his own 12-0 run that narrowed the gap to 37-30. That burst accounted for nearly half of Moore’s 25 points—just three shy of his career high—but he was more consistent than he was on Tuesday against Florida Atlantic. He was 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and added seven rebounds.

Yesterday marked the second time this season the Dutchmen have had two 20-point scorers in the same game (Lester and Moore both times). That happened just five times in 33 games last year.

“I think both did some great things,” Cassara said. “I think both of them would admit that they have some things that they can get better at. Twenty-five and 22 and a couple little tweaks here and there and they both have 30.”

3.) The Dutchmen had three double-digit scorers for the fourth time this season, but it was basically a three-man show. Lester, Moore and Crowder combined for 60 points, 20 of the Dutchmen’s 30 rebounds and all but one of their 25 free throw attempts. That so much of the Dutchmen’s offense went through those three went a long way towards explaining why Hofstra scored on just 15 of the 26 second half possessions in which it had a chance to cut Rhode Island’s lead to six points or less.

Shemiye McLendon, who entered the game averaging 8.4 points and 27 minutes per game, took just one shot, was scoreless for just the third time in 37 career games and tied a career low by playing just 10 minutes. David Imes pulled down five rebounds but scored just four points and has 15 points in his last three games, only the fifth time since the start of last season he has scored 15 or fewer in a three-game stretch. Point guards Stevie Mejia and Dwan McMillan combined for five points, four assists and four turnovers as the Dutchmen finished with 11 assists and 17 turnovers.

“We’ve got to get a little more out of David Imes and Shemiye and got to take better care of the basketball,” Cassara said. “It’s hard to win at Rhode Island if you turn it over 17 times a game. And in all reality, with three minutes to go, it’s a six-point game and if we get one stop we’re right there.”

4.) Somewhat related: The Dutchmen are just 2-3, but coming back from early double-digit deficits and avoiding routs at Oregon State and Rhode Island indicates the team possesses an undercurrent of toughness as well as the ability to correct its flaws.

“We’re not playing our best basketball yet but it’s a tough group—we’ve got some guys that don’t want to give up, they don’t want to lose [and] I think that only helps us moving forward,” Cassara said. “The one thing that’s really encouraging, from a statistical standpoint, is rebounding. We go out to Oregon State, the biggest team we’ll play all year, and lose by 10 without Bryant. And then today, against a really athletic team that really just jumped out on us, we still found a way to come back and I think we only gave them three offensive rebounds in the second half.

“We’re still making critical mistakes at critical times and that’s something that we’re going to get better at. These are things that can be fixed.”

5.) That said, as upbeat as Cassara was after the loss, there’s no concealing the fact it’s essential the moral victories be replaced by actual victories at some point in the next two days. And in order to avoid another 0-fer tournament—and to avoid carrying a four-game losing streak into the look-but-don’t-touch CAA opener against James Madison a week from today—the Dutchmen will have to figure out a way to beat a borderline top 25 team in Cleveland State tomorrow and/or defending North Atlantic Conference, err, America East champion Boston University Sunday.

The task got a little tougher Friday, when unbeaten Cleveland State needed five points in the last six seconds to come back and beat winless Boston U., 63-62. “We’ve gotta find a way,” Cassara said. “[Today] we’re playing a top 25 team, certainly a top 30 team in the country, a team that won at Vanderbilt, a team that won at Penn State. And then Boston U’s a really good team. They’re 0-4 but they’ve played a really tough schedule.

“This tournament is tough—if you think about it, go to Oregon State, go to Rhode Island. [play] Cleveland State and Boston University at neutral sites. Many ways, that’s tougher than Puerto Rico [last year].”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Rhode Island, 11/25)
3: Nathaniel Lester
2: Mike Moore
1: Bryant Crowder

Mike Moore 11
Nathaniel Lester 8
Shemiye McLendon 4
David Imes 3
Dwan McMillan 2
Bryant Crowder 1
Stevie Mejia 1

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