There’s no easing into the real start of CAA play for the Flying Dutchmen, who have been sitting on an 0-1 mark for 30 days now and get VCU—the conference’s best team in non-conference play and, as you may recall, the program that went all the way to the Final Four last year—at Hofstra Arena tonight before embarking on a two-game road trip to Delaware and UNC Wilmington.
But the Dutchmen bounced back from a brutal start to December and are bursting with confidence after ending the month with three straight wins, including a very impressive effort against Iona Thursday night. Mo Cassara was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his final night off for the next two-plus months to discuss the Dutchmen heading into the CAA season and his hopes and expectations for the Dutchmen. Thanks as always to Cassara for his time.
How much better do you feel now than three weeks ago?
Certainly, I know that there’s a lot of basketball to play. But I feel a lot better. I think our whole staff does, that we’ve been able to not play well and kind of go through a period of time where, between injuries and not playing well and various other things, that we were able to get through all that and then get back and put together some good wins. I feel a lot better from that angle.
How much of the slump do you think was a result of losing Stevie Mejia and Bryant Crowder right after the team had gotten a glimpse at just how good they could be with those two in the lineup, and how much of the recovery is a matter of knowing that this is the team you’ll be going forward the rest of the season?
I think both things were in play. I think there were a couple of injuries and [they were] not sure who was playing and who was going to play what role. Other than really the first week or 10 days after that, it was kind of up and down and back and forth. We made some decisions and we started to get some guys healthy and Stevie was shelved so we just had to move forward. Once we got some continuity that way and continuity with practice and practice time, it helped us.
What was the most important thing you learned about the Dutchmen during the non-conference season?
They’re a pretty resilient group. There were a couple times where I thought we were really going to go through a bad stretch where we were able to bounce back and fight through it and come back and have good practices. Even [through] the losses I thought we were getting better. They’re a pretty resilient group.
Tom Pecora always used to say seniors and veterans had to take ownership of a team when it was struggling. How impressed have you been with your four core veterans?
I think Dwan really symbolizes that. A year ago at this time he was done playing—played a few games, really, and was never really able to get [going]. He has really embraced being a senior and knowing that this is his last opportunity and he’s really become the vocal leader for the team.
They’re all doing their own things in their own way. I think one thing about leadership is you want guys to do what they do well—don’t try to do things they don’t do well. Nat Lester is not an incredibly vocal kid, that’s not who he is, but he’s doing a lot of the dirty work the last couple games. He’s started each game with an offensive rebound and putback and one. That’s leadership to me, that’s leadership from Nat where he says ‘I’ve got to go get off to a good start here and do things for the team.’ And Mike has done that by scoring and Dwan has done that with a lot of activity, verbally or with his quickness. And Dave has been steady. That’s the thing for him to do. Hopefully he can continue to have nights like he had the other night.
What did you learn about CAA play last year that you can apply this year?
I think the challenge of the schedule. With this week, there [are] three games, with two on the road. I think I’m already advance thinking about that, even after the Iona game—first thing [he thought was], I’ve got to prepare to play three games, we’ve got to [strike a] balance. I think the challenge of the schedule, I think we’ll be able to apply some things that will help us down the road here.
The CAA is wide-open this year. How can you use that as a motivating tool for this team, especially given that it’s probably not the one you envisioned having back in October?
I think our guys continue to watch the scores and monitor the scores. And certainly, James Madison is a very good team and we know we certainly had an opportunity to beat them. We’ve beaten a couple other really high level mid-major teams in Iona and Cleveland State. Now it’s time to string a few in a row. I think the one big key—and this is the thing we were able to do last year—is we were able to win some games on the road. That’s something we have to really do.
Last two questions. Hofstra will contend for a CAA Tournament bye if…
Dave Imes continues to put up double-doubles.
And Hofstra will struggle if…
Mike Moore doesn’t lead the league in scoring.