Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Of bad luck, how good we've had it and Bartering one’s soul for a win, never mind 19

There are more seasons of The Simpsons than there are games remaining on the Flying Dutchmen schedule. Don't make me keep digging for game day clips and photos!

You may find this hard to believe, given my milquetoast online personas, but I’m an argumentative sort. I enjoy a good debate and defending my side of an issue. And so it has been, in the three-plus years I’ve been writing Defiantly Dutch, that I’ve defended the recent performance of Hofstra men’s basketball and declared that those who criticized the Flying Dutchmen in recent years had no idea how good they had it.

While the Dutchmen have yet to reach the NCAA Tournament since joining the CAA (grrr) and haven’t even gotten to the CAA Tournament championship game since 2006 (double grrr), they have been in the thick of the race on an almost annual basis since breaking into CAA contention in 2004-05.

The Dutchmen are one of just 19 Division I teams to win at least 19 games in six of the last seven seasons. Of course, in typical rotten Hofstra luck, the Dutchmen are the only one of those 19 programs to never reach the NCAA Tournament in that span. But still, even without that life-affirming trip to the NCAA Tournament, such consistency is far, far better than the alternative.

Which, unfortunately, we are observing first-hand now. At 0-6 in the CAA—the worst conference start for Hofstra since the 1987-88 team opened 0-10 in the ECC—and 6-12 overall, the Dutchmen just want to win a conference game, never mind 12 more games after that. You don't need to be a journalism major like me to figure out 19 wins is not likely to happen this year.

And even if we believe the Dutchmen can be the team to rewrite the history of 0-6 teams—of the 14 previous teams to open CAA play 0-6, none finished .500 in conference and none won more than a single game in the conference tournament—the odds are this season will end with a below-.500 record and elimination on Friday or Saturday of the CAA Tournament.

And in many ways, Hofstra was due for a season like this. Even accounting for the fact the regular season is several games longer now than 15 or 20 years ago, it’s damn tough to win 19 games six out of every seven seasons. There’s no shame in having a hiccup 28 percent of the time.

And while my good friend Gary Moore is right that teams generally make their own luck, the Dutchmen’s recent skid has served as a gentle reminder of how decidedly fortunate they have been during this run.

On their way to a 21-win season in 2008-09, the Dutchmen endured a stretch in which they lost six of eight games spanning December and January. But after opening January by getting smoked by Drexel and Northeastern in consecutive wire-to-wire losses, the Dutchmen drew Delaware at home, edged the Blue Hens by five despite a 4-of-24 shooting performance from Charles Jenkins and then lost at VCU and Drexel to fall to 2-4 in the conference.

Then the Dutchmen won four in a row, a stretch in which they beat Northeastern and William & Mary at home and edged James Madison and UNC Wilmington on buzzer beaters on the road. The Dutchmen benefited from a schedule in which they faced the ninth-, seventh-, 11th- and 12th-place teams in a stretch of seven games.

The Dutchmen suffered another midseason funk during a 19-win 2009-10, when they lost nine of 11 and started out 2-7 in the CAA. But over the second half of the season, the Dutchmen played the bottom four teams in the CAA a total of six times and won all six games on their way to authoring one of the best stretch runs in conference history.

There has been no such break this year. Five of the six teams the Dutchmen have played thus far are .500 or better in conference. And who knows where the Dutchmen are right now if the first week of January begins with two home games instead of ends with two road games?

The schedule gets no easier, which tinges this start with an even bigger sense of desperation. The Dutchmen’s final five opponents this month enter tonight with an 18-12 conference mark. That’s doubly impressive considering James Madison’s 1-5 record is included in there.

The Dutchmen get a rematch with James Madison Saturday, but at Harrisonburg. And after that, they have to head straight to Richmond to take on VCU, after which the Dutchmen return home to face first-place George Mason. All of a sudden the idea of two 0-11 teams facing off when Towson visits Feb. 1 is no longer so outlandish.

No matter how bad this bad start gets, take solace in knowing how good we’ve had it—even if you disagreed with me earlier—and knowing I’ve seen much, MUCH worse. The Dutchmen were 28-56 during my three years on campus from 1993-96. They began play in a conference that doesn’t exist anymore (hi Litos!), which is almost as bad as winning a conference tournament that doesn’t exist anymore and didn’t carry with it an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament (or even the CBI!)

It got better in a hurry after I left—not the first time that’s happened!—and the Dutchmen won 19 games in 1997-98 and won 22 games and reached the NIT in 1998-99 before, of course, winning back-to-back America East titles in Jay Wright’s final two seasons at the helm.

There is ample reason to hope Mo Cassara’s second year is just like Wright’s second year—a painful transition season before his big-time recruits, in this case Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Taran Buie, arrive—and that another stretch of successful seasons are right around the corner. As bright as the future looks, though, right now I think I’d barter my soul for a win tonight.

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