Not a song I thought the Flying Dutchmen would be singing Saturday morning. (Also, criminal this barely sniffed the charts and Blaze of Glory hit no. 1. Just saying)
One of the subtle signs that Mo Cassara was born to be a basketball coach happened after every home game last season. He’d take the center seat at the podium in the interview room, and whether the Flying Dutchmen had just won big, won dramatically, lost big or lost dramatically, immediately open the press conference with a succinct take on the 40 (or more) preceding minutes of basketball.
On Saturday, though, Cassara was speechless after the Dutchmen suffered yet another demoralizing last-second defeat when Humpty Dance Hitchens—who hit a 60-footer at the halftime buzzer to give James Madison momentum going into the second half—drained a short jumper with less than three seconds left to give the Dukes a 62-60 win in the look-but-don’t-touch CAA opener. (If that score sounds familiar, it should: Florida Atlantic beat the Dutchmen by that exact score and in almost the exact same fashion two weeks earlier.)
After he was introduced by Brian Bohl, Cassara remained silent for three seconds before clearing his throat. He was silent for another three seconds after that before finally beginning his address.
Once he started speaking, Cassara struck an optimistic tone, but the mostly flat monotone with which he delivered his words and his tense body language—he wasn’t leaning forward, he wasn’t leaning back, he was just sitting at a slightly angled position in his chair, as if he couldn’t wait to get out of there and embark upon a sleepless night—hinted at the fury smoldering just beneath the surface. Here’s a postgame buffet that was far from delicious:
1.) Cassara REALLY wanted this one, and realized the extra sense of urgency created by stewing over the Boston University loss for six days and playing the conference opener short-handed—more on that shortly—and how valuable it would have been to eke out a win, especially with a road trip to potent Wagner and a home game against vastly improved Manhattan coming up this week.
The most telling image during the game was that of Cassara running along the baseline in the first half as a loose ball skittered towards the Dutchmen’s bench. I’m pretty sure he was a split second away from diving for the ball himself.
“Really proud of our team, the way they battled today,” Cassara said in beginning his remarks. “A little undermanned, some injuries and a little bit of a short bench tonight. I thought our guys really battled tonight. I thought we hung in there against a very good James Madison team. A lot of credit to them, they made some tough shots down the stretch.
“We continue to be in every game. I’m really proud of that. I think our guys are battling and we’re getting better everyday.”
Cassara might have spoke of how proud he was of the Dutchmen, but he held a 6:30 practice today—that’s 6:30 a.m., as in just before I fell asleep, thereby costing this post another 12 hours. Coaches who are happy do not host 6:30 am practices. Unless their names are John Chaney.
2.) The most concerning thing, though, is that the Dutchmen’s issues cannot be worked out in practice, no matter how early or late Cassara holds it. For the third time in their last four losses, the Dutchmen coughed up a large second half lead and allowed an opponent to score at will in the final handful of minutes of what had been a defensive-minded contest.
James Madison hit its last four shots over the final two minutes as it came back from a 56-52 deficit. The Dukes also scored on 10 of their final 16 possessions after falling behind 47-37 with 11 minutes to play, but four of those misses came consecutively as the Dutchmen turned a 52-52 tie into that four-point lead.
The Dutchmen had a chance to all but put the game away after the Dukes’ fourth straight scoreless possession, but Dwan McMillan missed a jumper with 2:11 left. Whether it’s scoring the basket to ice a victory, coming up with a stop down the stretch or refusing to allow an opponent to finally grab the lead late, the Dutchmen haven’t been able to do it, and that deficiency is the difference between 3-5 and 6-2.
“We just have to learn to find a way to win down the stretch,” Cassara said. “We’ve put ourselves in good situations. We just haven’t been able to complete some of those games at the end. I know, as time moves on here, we’re going to continue to get better at that.”
Early practice or not, it’s hard to envision the Dutchmen solving that issue any other way than by winning a game late. The next opportunity is tomorrow night against Wagner.
3.) Remember those 1,200 words or so I spilled Saturday morning about how the Dutchmen’s veteran presence could help Hofstra exceed pre-season expectations and contend in the CAA? Well, on Saturday, at least, not so much.
Cassara didn’t sub in the final 6:23, during which his lineup was seniors Mike Moore and Dwan McMillan, junior David Imes, sophomore Shemiye McLendon and freshman Moussa Kone. Before Saturday, that quintet had played a grand total of 126 second half seconds together—all in the waning stages of the Oregon State loss, during which the Dutchmen and Beavers played to a 6-6 tie.
That’s not exactly how Cassara would have drawn it up, even if all five players had generally positive games Saturday. Moore channeled Charles Jenkins by single-handedly the Dutchmen in the game with 20 first half points before he was suffocated by the Dukes in the second half, when he scored his only four points in the final minute. Imes had 10 points and seven rebounds, his most in either category since Oregon State.
McMillan played a career-high 38 minutes in place of the injured Stevie Mejia and had four assists to just one turnover as the Dutchmen finished with a positive ratio (17/10) for just the second time this year. McLendon, who had just four points in the three games at Rhode Island, rediscovered his Ice Ice Shemiye self with seven points, including a jumper that gave the Dutchmen a 56-52 lead, as well as three assists and two rebounds in the second half. And Kone provided a sign of things to come with six points, four blocks, two rebounds and two assists in 27 minutes.
But still, it’s telling that in the final minutes, Nathaniel Lester was on the bench after another brutal shooting night. He was 3-of-12 and the last miss—a wide-open 3-pointer from the right corner in which Lester was all alone and had time to set before firing up a miss when he had a chance to extend the Dutchmen’s lead to eight—provided a perfect summation of his epic five-game slump in which he is shooting 22 percent (13-of-58).
Cassara expressed confidence in Lester afterward, but it’s clear the inconsistency that dogged Lester’s first three years didn’t disappear during his redshirt year. “Sometimes [slumps] just happen,” Cassara said. “He’s a good player, he’s a very good player. He’s working hard. One of these days all the shots are going to fall in for him.”
4.) It’s funny, in that it’s not funny at all, how quickly the Dutchmen went from impressively deep to perilously thin. At least we know Mejia will be back, probably sooner than later. Alas, the future of Bryant Crowder is far cloudier.
Nobody’s talking about what he did to get suspended, but it had to be serious. As jarring as it was to not see Crowder on the bench, it was even more telling that he was listed as suspended in the game notes. Cassara likes to keep injury information and lineup machinations close to the vest, and has been particularly tight-lipped about why Crowder sat out the first four games of the season, declining to call it a suspension or to say it was anything other than a coach’s decision.
So to announce Crowder was suspended for a violation of team rules—granted, the news wasn’t in DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN font, but it was there—tells me it was serious enough that Crowder is on strike two and 9/10ths with Cassara. I have nothing to back that up, it’s just a hunch. And at this moment I’d be surprised if we ever see him suit up for Hofstra again.
I hope I’m wrong, because he brought a dimension the Flying Dutchmen have lacked from their center for as long as I’ve been watching them. And Cassara and the staff are fond of Crowder as a person and knew his transition to Division I would have some hiccups after spending the last two seasons at two junior colleges.
But my impression is that Cassara’s patience is just about exhausted after Crowder was unavailable in three games the Dutchmen lost by a combined 11 points—games in which Crowder’s presence could easily have made the difference. And my guess is Cassara is even more frustrated because whatever happened last week happened after he reinstated Crowder following the four-game absence. With plenty of season left to save and plenty of time to adjust to Crowder’s absence, as well as a program to build and standards to establish, don’t be shocked if we never see Crowder play a game that counts at Hofstra Arena.
5.) While there’s plenty of season left to save, the Dutchmen have already reached a crisis point. Not only do they have to stare at an 0-1 CAA mark for another month, but they’re 3-5 with two straight losses and a pair of challenges awaiting them this week. Danny Hurley is turning Wagner into a mini-Iona and the Seahawks just throttled St. Francis by 40 (the Dutchmen beat the Terriers by just four points). And Manhattan, under first-year head coach Steve Masiello, is already 2-0 in the MAAC.
In addition, of the final five opponents the Dutchmen will face before the ball drops in Times Square, four are ahead of them in the RPI and the fifth is winless Binghamton, which would have beaten the Dutchmen last year if not for Jenkins. The Dutchmen will have to fix things on the fly, all while avoiding falling into a funk over this series of agonizing near-misses.
“My job is to put that out of their minds,” Cassara said, referring to the late-game fades. “We obviously made a couple mistakes down the stretch. We have to learn how to win. That’s a skill, that’s a talent that we have, we just haven’t been able to execute quite well enough yet.
“Sometimes I think you can learn a lot from losses and we’ve had a handful of really tough losses where one time it’s one thing, one time it’s another. And ultimately, eventually, we’ll get better at that.”