Saturday, December 3, 2011

Friday Work Session: Of cats, Christmas trees and can veterans lift Hofstra to surprising heights in the CAA?

This is the smarter of our cats, the one who doesn't eat the tree and then create a nice mess for Daddy to clean.

I am totally ripping off Litos here with the “Work Session” moniker, but I’m not going to apologize because I bet he didn’t spend much of his Thursday Work Session putting up the Christmas tree with his much better half and then screaming at his cat to stop eating the fake branches before she predictably yakked (the cat, not his better half) and he had to clean up the mess. Nothing says Christmas like cat puke. At least in my house.

Anyway. It’s the end of a long-ass week and I apologize for not getting to this sooner. Blah blah blah, rinse, wash, repeat. But with the Flying Dutchmen opening up CAA play with the look-but-don’t-touch opener against James Madison this afternoon, I thought now would be a good time to revisit my months-long contention that the Dutchmen will exceed pre-season expectations thanks to their veteran-laden roster.

First things first: As the team picked to finish eighth in the pre-season poll, history is not on the side of the Dutchmen. Since the CAA expanded to 10 teams in 2001-02, the school that was picked eighth has finished eighth or lower eight times (is that irony?). And the two schools to place better than expected only did so by two spots: Old Dominion finished sixth in 2002-03 and Northeastern took sixth in 2007-08.

In addition, only one other eighth-place pick even finished as high as eighth: William & Mary in 2001-02. Every other eighth-place pick finished lower than projected, “led” by William & Mary, which placed 11th last year, and James Madison, which finished in 10th and last place in 2003-04.

The good news, of course, is this means it won’t take much for the Dutchmen to become the most successful team ever picked to finish in eighth place, at least in the post-America East pillaging era! Fueling my optimism has been the collective maturity of the Dutchmen, whose starting lineup features four players at least four years removed from their senior year of high school.

Redshirt seniors Nathaniel Lester (graduated high school in 1807, err, 2007 and sat out last year with his quad injury) and Mike Moore (graduated high school in 2007 and sat out a year after transferring from Fordham following his sophomore year) lead the way, followed by redshirt junior Stevie Mejia (graduated high school in 2008 and sat out a year after transferring from Rhode Island following his sophomore year) and junior David Imes (graduated high school in 2008 and prepped for a year before enrolling at Hofstra in the fall of 2009). All four players are at least 21 years old, with Moore at 22 and Lester at 23.

Only three other CAA schools have four or more starters four or more years removed from their senior year of high school—led by, in a bit of Alanis irony, James Madison, whose five starters all meet this criteria. Old Dominion and Georgia State also have four starters four or more years out of high school.

(I defined starting lineup as the five—or more, in case of ties—players who have made the most starts thus far. Only Hofstra, Drexel and Northeastern have fielded the same starting five this year. NORTHERN BIAS!!)

I latched on to the veteran presence as a talking point/reason to believe for two reasons. The most relevant one here is, as Litos notes in his Thursday Work Session, the overwhelmingly youthful nature of the CAA this year in The Year After The Final Four II.

This would seem to be a year in which an older and more experienced team could rely on that maturity and make a surprise move into contention, if not finally turn upside down a league that almost always goes according to form and win the whole damn thing. Only twice since 2001-02 has a team picked lower than second won the CAA tournament. But the CAA’s meager out-of-conference performance thus far has done nothing to discourage the notion that the championship is ripe for the taking by an out-of-nowhere squad.

The other is the two most successful teams in the DD Era—if not the entire Division I era at Hofstra—were both loaded with veterans. The 2005-06 team featured four players all four years removed from their senior year of high school in seniors Aurimas Kieza and Adrian Uter and juniors Carlos Rivera and Loren Stokes, each of whom prepped for a year before arriving at Hofstra.

That team also had Antoine Agudio, a third-year sophomore who redshirted as a freshman. And by the end of the season, every player was at least 21, with Stokes already 22 and Kieza and Rivera already 23.

And the 2000-01 team that won 18 straight games and repeated as America East champions had four senior starters, including a pair of players five years removed from their senior year of high school in Norman Richardson and Jason Hernandez. Richardson and Greg Springfield were each 23 years old while Hernandez was 22 and Roberto Gittens was 21. (Sophomore Rick Apodaca was a mere 20)

(Related: Goddamn that makes me feel old)

All that said, the preceding six graphs are by no means a predictor of future performance. I haven’t had the time, and it frustrates me to admit I probably will never have the time and/or the resources, to find out how veteran-laden teams tend to fare in the CAA, at least since 2001-02.

We know experienced George Mason (grrr) and VCU squads made the Final Four, but how has everyone else done? Are teams that have at least four starters at least four years removed from their senior year of high school fare better than average?

And in many ways, these Dutchmen are experienced in name only, particularly when it comes to playing with each other. Entering this season, the quartet of veteran starters had a grand total of 183 games at Hofstra under their belts, including just 109 starts. Lester and Mejia sat out last year and Imes and Moore each started all 33 games last year after barely playing and sitting out, respectively, the previous year.

Compare that to the 2005-06 starters (245 games at Hofstra, including 178 starts) and the once-in-a-generation 2000-01 squad (a remarkable 308 games at Hofstra, including 237 starts—only one by Apodaca).

These Dutchmen have been appropriately unpredictable, with veteran presence playing a part in a narrow win over St. Francis and the upset of Cleveland State and the inexperience showing in the loss to Boston University. There should be plenty of peaks and valleys this season—moments in which the Dutchmen appear to have as good a shot as anyone at winning the CAA and moments in which an eighth-place finish unfortunately seems all too realistic.

It’ll be interesting to track all year, beginning this afternoon against a fellow veteran-laden team. But remember who foresaw it way back in December if the eventual CAA champion is playing at Hofstra today. (Note to the sporting gods: Please make sure it’s the Flying Dutchmen. Thank you.)

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