Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Just The Facts: CAA teams with leading scorer & assist man

Yeah I'm just gonna stick with Dumb & Dumber clips. Because it's THE BEST MOVIE EVER.

Thanks to Dwan McMillan’s sensational Senior Day performance Saturday, the Flying Dutchmen ended the regular season with the CAA’s leading scorer in Mike Moore (20.0 ppg) and assist man in McMillan (4.9 apg). The Dutchmen are just the fifth team in the 30-year history of the CAA (but only the second in the last 20 years) to have different players lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season. Not bad for an 11th-place team.

Such statistical supremacy (hooray alliteration!) would seem to be the domain of dominant teams, but while the Dutchmen have a far worse conference record than any of their predecessors, two of the four finished the regular season with a losing record, including another squad that won just 10 regular season games. None of the teams with the leading scorer and assist man finished higher than third and only one—spoiler alert: it was one of the losing teams—won the CAA Tournament. But every team except one won at least one tourney game.

Here’s a look at how the other four teams with the CAA’s leading scorer and assist man fared, both in the regular season and in the CAA Tournament:

DELAWARE 2004-05: Harding Nana 18.5 ppg, Mike Slattery 6.5 apg. Blue Hens finished 11-20 overall and 7-11 in the CAA. Earned the seventh seed in a 10-team league and won an opening round game before falling in the quarterfinals.

OLD DOMINION 1991-92: Ricardo Leonard 20.4 ppg, Donald Anderson 4.4 apg. Monarchs finished 15-15 overall and 8-6 in the CAA. Earned the fourth seed in an eight-team league and won three games in as many days to win the title and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

GEORGE MASON 1987-88: Kenny Sanders 22.0 ppg, Amp Davis 6.1 apg. Patriots finished 20-10 overall and 9-5 in the CAA. Earned the third seed in an eight-team league and lost in the championship game.

GEORGE MASON 1983-84: Carlos Yates 22.1 ppg, John Niehoff 4.8 apg. Patriots finished 21-7 overall and 5-5 in the CAA. Earned the fourth seed in a six-team league and lost in the first round.

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Just The Facts 2012: So you’re telling me there’s a chance!

Words to live by!

Welcome to one of my favorite times of the year: CAA Tournament week and the unveiling of my annual Just The Facts, in which I waste little time penning my usual pensive prose (gack) in favor of presenting meat-and-potatoes facts about topics relevant to the Flying Dutchmen.

With the Dutchmen mired in 11th place and well below .500, the focus is a bit different this year, so we’ll start Just The Facts with a look at the teams that give us hope this week—those who have overcome a rough season to win their conference tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record. Seventeen teams have gone dancing despite a sub-.500 record, which means that while I didn’t major in math I can tell you the odds of joining this select group are very, very, very long. But these 17 teams allow us to keep saying there’s a chance!

2008 COPPIN STATE (won MEAC with a 16-20 record): Hope for the Dutchmen? The Eagles were a staggering 4-19 on Feb. 2 thanks to the school’s rigorous non-conference schedule (which included losses at Xavier and Marquette in which Coppin State was doubled up as well as 30-point losses at Dayton, Indiana and Missouri) as well as an 0-8 start in MEAC play. But five of those losses were by six points or less and the Eagles won seven of their final eight conference games to finish 7-9 and earn the seventh seed. They then won four in a row in a five-day span in the conference tournament, the last on a buzzer-beating tip-in to knock off top-seeded Morgan State, to become the first NCAA Tournament team ever with 20 losses.

2005 OAKLAND (won Mid-Continent with a 12-18 overall record): The Golden Grizzlies lost their first seven games, six of which were guarantee games on the road, and didn’t win consecutive conference games until the final two games of the season. But Oakland (7-9 in conference play), the seventh seed in the eight-team tournament, won three games in as many days in the conference tournament by a grand total of eight points, including a last-second win over top-seeded Oral Roberts in the title game.

2004 FLORIDA A&M (won MEAC with a 14-16 overall record): The Rattlers opened with six straight losses and 10 losses in their first 11 games, which included at least four guarantee games as well as two MEAC losses. Florida A&M then won five in a row and 10 of its final 16 games to finish fifth in the MEAC at 10-8 before winning three games in as many days against higher-seeded teams to win the automatic bid.

2003 NC-ASHEVILLE (won Big South with a 14-16 overall record): The Bulldogs started out 3-3, lost eight of their next 10 (including guarantee games at UConn, Oklahoma and Kansas in which they lost by a combined 138 points, YIKES) and then won five Big South games in a row and six of seven before finishing the season with four straight conference losses, all but one by eight points or more. All hell broke loose in the tournament, when fifth-seeded NC-Asheville (8-8 in league play) won its first two games by a total of three points—including a one-point win over top-seeded Winthrop in the semifinals—before routing sixth-seeded Radford in the title game.

2002 SIENA (won MAAC with a 16-18 record): Here’s a relevant tale for the Flying Dutchmen, and not just because the Saints visited Hempstead this month. Siena didn’t reach .500 after its second game of the year and endured three three-game losing streaks in non-conference play before winning four in a row to start January and improve to 5-1 in MAAC play. But the Saints were inconsistent the rest of the way and ended the season with three straight losses—all by six points or less—to fall to seventh (at 9-9) and into the MAAC’s version of Pillow Fight Friday. Fortunately for the Saints, who beat 10th-seeded Saint Peter’s in the opener, this tournament REALLY went haywire as the top three seeds were all beaten in the quarterfinals. Siena endured its biggest scare in the quarters against second-seeded Marist and routed Fairfield and Niagara by a combined 35 points in the final two games to cap its four-wins-in-four-days march to the title.

1999 FLORIDA A&M (won MEAC with 12-18 record): The only program to twice reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record. The Rattlers lost their first 10 games and 13 of their first 14, including five of their first six MEAC games, before winning six of their next eight. Florida A&M (8-11 MEAC) endured a three-game losing streak in late February before winning its season finale by two points to enter the MEAC tournament as the seventh seed, where the Rattlers won four games in a six-day span, the final three over the top three seeds.

1998 PRAIRIE VIEW A&M (won SWAC with 13-16 record): The Panthers played their first 10 games on the road, during which they went 1-9, and continued losing once SWAC play began in earnest in January. Prairie View A&M opened conference play with a 1-8 mark, then won three in a row before losing another three in a row. The Panthers (6-10 SWAC) won their final two regular season games to eke out the seventh seed in an eight-team league and then won three games in three days by a total of eight points.

1997 FAIRFIELD (won MAAC with 11-18 record): Perhaps the longest of "so you're telling me there's a chance..." squad ever. After dropping their season opener, the Stags won three straight. They wouldn't win three in a row again until the MAAC Tournament from March 1-3. In between Fairfield went 5-17, including 2-12 in conference. The Stags finished eighth and last in the MAAC by two games but stunned top-seeded Iona 80-71 in the quarterfinals and routed fourth-seeded Saint Peter's in the semifinals before edging Canisius in the title game. Ten days later, Fairfield nearly penned the greatest story in NCAA Tournament history when it took a seven-point halftime lead against no. 1 seed North Carolina and were still tied withi the Tar Heels with less than eight minutes to go before falling, 82-74.

1997 JACKSON STATE (won SWAC with 14-15 record): The front end of the second pair of back-to-back conference champions with sub-.500 records, the Tigers went 1-10 in the non-conference schedule, during which they played just three home games and visited the likes of Arkansas, Memphis, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and lost their first two SWAC games before 10 of their final 13 games to finish second in the conference. Jackson State (9-5 SWAC) won its first two tournament games by a total of nine points before upending top-seeded Mississippi Valley State in the final.

1996 CENTRAL FLORIDA (won TAAC with 11-16 record): The Knights had a seven-game losing streak and a five-game losing streak in their first 14 games, opened Atlantic Sun play with a win and promptly lost their next four league games. Central Florida finished the season with four losses in its final five games and backed into the tournament as the sixth seed in an eight-team tournament. (Tangentially related to the CAA alert: The Knights were one of four teams to finish 6-10 in league play. The only one to miss the tournament was Georgia State) But the Knights benefited from a chaotic first round in which the first, third and fourth seeds were all beaten before they knocked off second-seeded Campbell in the semifinals and fifth-seeded Mercer in the title game by nine points apiece over the next two days.

1995 FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (won TAAC with 11-18 record): The first of the Atlantic Sun’s back-to-back sub-.500 titlists and the patron saint of long-shot sub-.500 teams everywhere. The Golden Panthers began the season 2-6, won their Atlantic Sun opener and lost their next six conference games. Florida International won consecutive conference games just once and snuck into the tournament as the eighth and final seed, by virtue of a tiebreaker over fellow 4-12 squad Campbell, after winning three of its final four league games. The Golden Knights stunned top-seeded Stetson in the quarterfinals and edged fourth-seeded Southwestern Louisiana by a point in overtime in the semifinals before beating third-seeded Mercer for their third win in as many days. All this happened under a head coach, Bob Weltlich, who had already announced his “resignation” effective at the end of the season.

1993 EAST CAROLINA (won CAA with 13-16 record): The patron saint of sub-.500 CAA teams for 19 seasons now! The Pirates (4-10 in CAA play during the regular season) emerged as the seventh seed and won three games in three days to become the only team (so far!) to win the CAA with a losing record. Check out my story from two years ago this weekend in which ex-East Carolina coach Eddie Payne reminisced about his squad’s accomplishment. Spoilers: These Dutchmen have some similarities to those Pirates.

1986 MONTANA STATE (won Big Sky with 14-16 record): The Bobcats began the season 1-6 and won as many as two straight conference games just twice during the regular season on their way to a 6-8 finish. But as the fifth seed in a seven-team tournament, Montana State knocked off the fourth, first and second seeds in a three-day span by a combined 12 points to earn the automatic bid. The Bobcats then went on to throw a scare into top-seeded St. John’s in the first round of the West Regional, a game the Redmen won by just nine.

1985 LEHIGH (won ECC with 12-18 record): Hey Litos I’m not making this up! Nor am I making up this bit of serendipity: In winning three games in three days and becoming the first team to win a conference tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament with a sub-.500 record, the Engineers beat our beloved Flying Dutchmen and cost them a chance to get waxed by Georgetown. Lehigh (6-8 in ECC play) and Hofstra were the sixth and seventh seeds, respectively, but scored first round upsets before the Engineers edged the Dutchmen by four points to advance to the final against top-seeded Bucknell, whom Lehigh knocked off in overtime. The Engineers’ three wins in as many days equaled the number of wins they had in the preceding 36 days during which they went 2-8 and lost six straight league games.

1978 MISSOURI (won Big 8 with 14-15 record): What the hell is a major conference school doing here? I thought the Tigers as well as the first two squads to reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record did so by winning the regular season crown with a losing overall record, but who knew, they played conference tournaments long before ESPN needed programming. Go figure. Anyway, the Tigers (4-10 Big 8) opened the season with three straight wins and then didn’t win three straight games again until they swept through the Big 8 Conference tournament as the seventh seed. (This was so long ago that the number of teams in a conference actually matched the name!) Missouri beat Iowa State, Nebraska and Kansas State (in double overtime) by a combined eight points to win the title.

1974 TEXAS (won SWC with 12-14 record): The only sub-.500 team to reach the NCAA Tournament without having to win a conference tournament, the Longhorns opened the season with nine straight losses and 11 defeats in their first 12 games. But they flipped the switch as Southwest Conference play began and went 11-3 the rest of the way—including five straight wins to finish the regular season—to win the championship by two games.

1961 GEORGE WASHINGTON (won Southern Conference with 9-16 record): The first team to reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record remains the inspiration for every team that endured a forgettable regular season. The Colonials had the worst regular season winning percentage (.273) of any NCAA Tournament team, lost nine of 10 games late in the campaign and enjoyed just one “winning streak” as long as two games before they won three straight tournament games—the last over, I kid you not, William & Mary—in, I kid you not, RICHMOND to advance to the NCAA Tournament. OH MY GOD IT’S ALL MEANT TO BE!

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Hofstra 93, UNC Wilmington 64 (Or: A little touchup and a little paint…)

Only 11 more chances to figure out the theme of the post-game recaps, Loyal Reader Missy, err, everyone!

Referee Sean Casady sidled up to Mo Cassara as the Flying Dutchmen produced their most dominant CAA victory in more than two years and asked the question on the minds of most of the 3,017 fans at Hofstra Arena.

“He said ‘Where has this been all year?’” Cassara said after the Dutchmen routed UNC Wilmington, 93-64, in the regular season finale Saturday.

Cassara and his players have believed they were capable of a performance like this throughout an exasperating, luckless season in which the effort never waned even as the Dutchmen suffered narrow loss after narrow loss. It all finally came together in a rollicking Senior Day victory fueled by the three departing Dutchmen.

CAA scoring champion Mike Moore had 30 points and Nathaniel Lester remained among the top 10 scorers in the league with 20 points to lead five Dutchmen in double figures. But the most impressive performance was authored by the third senior, Dwan McMillan, who racked up an incredible 15 assists—the most in the CAA this season and one shy of the Hofstra single-game record, set way back by Robbie Weingard in the 1983-84 season—to surge past VCU’s Darius Theus and win the CAA’s assist title.

“We had as many close games as anybody in the league, if not in the country this year, [and] didn’t come out on the right end of a lot of them,” Cassara said. “But tonight I thought our energy was great, our effort was great and our attitude was great. And that’s a credit to these three guys. Their stats throughout the course of the game were really incredible.”

As a team, the Dutchmen put up some pretty incredible—and borderline historical—stats. The Dutchmen tied a team record, set way back in the 1988-89 season, with 25 assists. The Dutchmen shot 56.6 percent, their best effort since the season opener against Long Island, and drained a season-high 12 3-pointers. Defensively, the Dutchmen enjoyed a 39-possession stretch in which they didn’t allow UNC Wilmington to score on consecutive trips up the floor.

The Dutchmen led by as many as 37 with a little more than two minutes to play prior to a game-ending 13-4 run by the Seahawks and were on pace for their first 100-point effort against a Division I opponent in almost exactly 20 years until Cassara took the air out of the ball down the stretch(cough, would never happen if Jaime Larranaga coached here, cough cough).

The 29-point victory was still the program’s biggest margin of victory over a Division I opponent since a 93-54 win over UNC Wilmington Jan. 27, 2010, the game that infamously got Benny Moss Benny Mossed. And the lopsided win cut the Dutchmen’s overall point differential this season by more than half (from 54 points to 25 points) and made them just one of two CAA teams to win at least two games by 25 points this season.

“We were clicking on the offensive end and defensive end,” Lester said. “Not a bad time to start.”

We won’t know until late Friday night whether the win was the start of something big—or at least a run to Sunday or Monday in the CAA Tournament—or merely a fluke outburst against the worst defensive team in the CAA. But the Dutchmen certainly displayed some elements of a winning team against the Seahawks.

The Dutchmen got off to their usual fast start (taking a 9-0 lead, during which UNC Wilmington coach Buzz Peterson subbed out his entire starting lineup) before, as usual, quickly allowing the opponent back into the contest. But after falling behind 14-11, the Dutchmen outscored the Seahawks 34-11 to end the first half and remained ruthless and unrelenting in the second half.

The Dutchmen improved to 8-9 when three or more players score in double digits (Stevie Mejia, Stephen Nwaukoni and Shemiye McLendon all scored 10 points each). The dual point guard combination of McMillan and Mejia continued to create opportunities on both ends of the floor: In addition to combining for 19 assists, they sparked a defense that recorded eight steals (the 10th time in 11 games they’ve had at least seven thefts) and forced more turnovers than the Dutchmen committed for the 10th straight game.

“I think this small lineup has helped us a lot,” Cassara said. “I think the pressure we’ve been able to put [on teams], like last Saturday on Siena and for the most part William & Mary until the very end of the game and then today, we’ve been able to wear some teams down. So we have to try to continue to do that.”

Nwaukoni had a double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) and mostly neutralized UNC Wilmington big man Keith Rendleman. Moussa Kone fouled out in just 17 minutes of play, but hit both of his field goal attempts, including a sweet 10-foot bank shot in the first half, as well as both of his free throws. He’s 5-for-5 from the field in the last two games and 4-of-5 from the free throw line in the last four games after beginning the season by hitting just 10 of his first 28 attempts.

“I thought [Nwaukoni] did a great job defensively,” Cassara said. “I think you saw his strength. Rendleman is a terrific player and our whole team did a great job on him, doubling him in the post and frustrating him.”

The odds are this frustrating season for the Dutchmen won’t have a Hollywood ending (as we’ll get into all week long with the annual Just The Facts, coming soon to a screen near you!) and that extending the program’s Senior Day winning streak to 16 games will stand as the highlight of the most challenging campaign in 17 years. But the rout at least created some momentum for the Dutchmen heading into Friday night’s opening round game against Georgia State and provided a glimpse at what this team can do when things are clicking.

“Better late than never—it’s a start,” Moore said. “This gives us a lot of momentum going in and a lot of confidence for the guys whose shots haven’t been falling.”

“We’ve really been having great practices the last two weeks,” McMillan said. “Some of the games we haven’t closed out, but I think we can make some noise.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. UNC Wilmington, 2/25)
3: Dwan McMillan
2: Mike Moore
1: Nathaniel Lester

Mike Moore 64
Nathaniel Lester 45
Dwan McMillan 20
Stevie Mejia 15
David Imes 14
Stephen Nwaukoni 10
Shemiye McLendon 9
Moussa Kone 6
Bryant Crowder 2
Matt Grogan 1

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lester maximizes Hofstra experience

A year ago at this time, Charles Jenkins’ Dad spoke of how his son got everything he could out of the college experience and wrung his scholarship completely dry. Nathaniel Lester, Jenkins’ longtime best friend, didn’t have the type of career Jenkins enjoyed (of course, who did?) and probably won’t follow Jenkins into the NBA. But just like Jenkins, Lester will walk out of Hofstra knowing he maximized the collegiate experience.

Lester, who will be honored today along with Mike Moore and Dwan McMillan in Senior Day festivities prior to the Flying Dutchmen’s regular season finale against UNC Wilmington, earned his bachelor’s degree in December 2010, after just three-and-a-half years, and is a few credits shy of finishing his master’s in linguistics. Such a feat is particularly satisfying for Lester, who identified Hofstra’s academic reputation as one of the reasons he signed with the school back in the fall of 2006.

“Signing here was important to me for academics, especially for my family—they really wanted me to go to a school that took academics seriously,” Lester said this week. “The graduation rate here was really good. And I graduated in three-and-a-half years, so they kept their word with that.”

On the court, Lester bounced back from an up-and-down first three years, as well as the quad injury that cost him all of last season, to put together an all-CAA caliber type of season as a redshirt senior. Lester surged past the 1,000-point mark, has scored in double digits more this season (26 times) than he did in his first three seasons combined (22) and is one of just three players in the CAA who ranks in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.

“Going out like that for my senior year, it feels like a relief—I felt like I could have done this since my freshman year if I had more of an opportunity,” Lester said. “This is something that any college player would want to do, especially their last year. To finally get a chance to do it—no better year to do it than your senior year.”

Lester wasn’t striking a bitter tone while discussing his opportunities and was, in fact, echoing what former coach Tom Pecora said last fall, when Pecora admitted it was tough to get Lester involved in the offense with potent scorers such as Jenkins and Antoine Agudio—the top two scorers in school history—sharing the court with Lester.

Lester was paired with another high-volume scorer this year in Mike Moore, who has more than 1,500 career points between Hofstra and Fordham, but the Lester who returned as a redshirt senior was better equipped to become the second part of a 1-2 punch.

The similar poses Lester struck in his first and last photo days at Hofstra symbolize his development: In the fall of 2007, a baby-faced Lester sported shoulder-length hair, stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 190 pounds as spun a basketball on his finger. He did the same thing this year, except with an extra inch of height and 15 pounds of muscle added to a far broader frame. Add in a closely cropped haircut and Lester now bears a striking resemblance to NBA superstar Dwight Howard.

Lester was recruited as a shooting guard but played the forward positions this year and presented matchup problems for opposing teams, most of whom lacked someone who could match his power at small forward or his athleticism and ability to run the floor as a power forward. In addition to ranking in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding, Lester is also in the top 15 in the CAA in steals.

“I have no problem with playing any role that they want me to play,” Lester said. “I can play defense or score the ball for you.”

Lester’s versatility, as well as the intangibles that made him a two-time captain at Hofstra, should give him plenty of opportunity to continue his career. While Lester is quiet, his work ethic and stoicism have served as anchors for a Flying Dutchmen team that has never quit despite going through the program’s worst season in 16 years.

“I guess I get [his personality] from my father—that’s what my mother tells me,” Lester said. “My father’s really quiet and laid-back. I think it plays a good role because the days that are not going good and you seem not to panic, people are looking up to you and see that you’re calm and that may calm them down [and help them] be more relaxed.”

Lester will be predictably low-key today when he walks on the court with his Mom and other members of his family, but he admitted this week he’s growing nostalgic as his eventful career winds to a close. He recalled his first pickup game in the summer of 2007 with a who’s who of “where are they now?” candidates

“I was playing against the older guys and I was nervous—I wanted to show them that I would be able to play with them,” Lester said. “Antoine Agudio, Ryan Johnson. Mike Davis-Sabb, Charles, Greg, ‘Pittsy’ [Arminas Urbutis], Ziggy [Sestakos]…”

Lester also played on a pair of 20-game winners, a pair of sub-.500 teams and watched as the Dutchmen went through three coaches in a five-week span in the spring of 2010. He smiled as he looked at his freshman year picture this week and pondered what the 2012 Lester would tell the 2007 Lester.

“I had no idea what to expect—as much as people tell you, you won’t know until you go through it,” Lester said. “You couldn’t prepare for it.

“A lot’s happened—we’ve had our ups and downs here, but for the most part I’ve had a great time, good experiences, great coaches,” Lester said. “So I’m pretty happy.”

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McMillan finds a home at nearby Hofstra

On the surface, the Dwan McMillan story is not all that unusual: Talented guard ends up playing basketball for a school that has been watching him since he was in elementary school.

Except—well, let McMillan tell the tale.

“Coach David Duke recruited me since I was 11 years old,” McMillan said, referring to the longtime Hofstra assistant who is now with Tom Pecora at Fordham. “I came here with Terrell Holloway and my little brother and we all watched them open this [arena] in 2000 with Speedy and all those guys.

“I’m like ‘I’m not going to Hofstra, it’s too close,’ because my Dad lives five minutes away from here. So I was like ‘I’m never coming here.’”

And so of course McMillan will be one of three seniors honored at Senior day today prior to the Flying Dutchmen’s game against UNC Wilmington. “As soon as they leave, I come to Hofstra,” McMillan said with a grin. “It was an ironic situation. I’m just happy to be here.”

McMillan landed at Hofstra thanks to plenty of twists of fate, the last of which impacted two McMillans and was directly connected to Pecora and his staff leaving for Fordham. Devon “Fatty” McMillan, Dwan’s younger brother, signed with Hofstra as a high school senior in the fall of 2009 and followed Pecora to Fordham the following spring.

At that point, Dwan was finishing his sophomore season at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa and planning to attend Iowa State. But Cyclones head coach Greg McDermott departed for Creighton on Apr. 27, 33 days after Pecora was introduced at Fordham.

Dwan McMillan thought he was following McDermott to Nebraska, but the Brooklyn native decided to head back home and ended up at Hofstra thanks to the dominoes that continued to fall after Pecora’s exit. Freshman point guard Chaz Williams transferred shortly after Mo Cassara took over for Tim Welsh and McMillan filled the void thanks to an assist from Allen Griffin, a close friend of the McMillan family.

“He’s like an uncle to me and like a son to my Dad,” McMillan said. “I felt I was at home and it’s turned out to be a good decision. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

McMillan feels the same way about the entire collegiate experience, one in which he has had to surmount plenty of hurdles. McMillan originally committed to South Florida out of St. Benedict’s in New Jersey, but learned he wasn’t eligible thanks to a snafu with the NCAA Clearinghouse (gee, sound familiar?) after he’d already moved to the Tampa campus and begun taking part in summer classes and conditioning. McMillan spent his freshman year at Miami-Dade Community College before heading to Iowa as a sophomore.

Adjusting to life at the junior college level after getting a taste of the Big East was challenging. “Everything was so good, that’s what I got used to,” McMillan said. “Then when I had to go to JUCO, it was a totally different experience. It’s tough, you’ve got to be mentally tough to come back from that and still be playing.

“I’m just grateful. A lot of people in my situation from JUCO haven’t made it to Division I. A lot of them go to NAIA, drop out or go Division II.”

McMillan’s time at Hofstra hasn’t been easy, either. He started the first 11 games last season before suffering a season-ending eye injury just after the point at which he was no longer eligible for a medical redshirt. Stevie Mejia opened this season as the starting point guard, but McMillan ended up back in the lineup when Mejia suffered a hamstring injury Thanksgiving weekend.

McMillan became the Dutchmen’s leader, on and off the court, in Mejia’s absence. In addition to ranking second in the CAA in assists and third in assist-to-turnover ratio, McMillan has also brought a swagger to an otherwise quiet team. He’s the player who leads the pregame huddle following the introduction of starting lineups and who keeps things loose during games, either by turning into the guy other fans love to target during games—at Drexel two weeks ago, McMillan turned and laughed at the notoriously rabid Dragons fans just before inbounding the ball underneath the Hofstra basket—or by making teammates laugh with his own quirks, such as asking the referee to let him hold the basketball before he shoots a free throw. (He said it’s not a superstition, just a way to dry his hands off before shooting.)

“I just try to have fun out there, because this is a humbling and grateful experience to even be playing college basketball,” McMillan said. “I try to take everything in and try to grasp it and try to have fun with it. This is my last go-around, I don’t want to be walking around angry. Just trying to have fun with it and show my teammates how to be loose.”

While McMillan’s collegiate career is down to a handful of games at most, he plans to continue bringing his infectious brand of energy to basketball teams, both on the floor and on the sideline.

“I’m going to play until the wheels fall off,” McMillan said. “I want to be a coach one day—not in college, it’s too tough, I’d be a high school coach. I just love the game of basketball. And the game of basketball has helped me get to college, get a degree, just have fun. I’m just so grateful for the situation that I’m in.”

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Moore is moved to give back after a friend is taken away

Mike Moore, who calls himself one of the “grandpas” of the Hofstra campus, felt every bit the ancient fifth-year senior as he exited the showers following a 30-point, three-steal performance in the Flying Dutchmen’s 81-69 win over Siena last Saturday.

But before Moore could stretch out and relax in his dorm room, there was a game of 1-on-1 to be played with a 6-year-old. Jair Mathis, the son of Moore’s late friend T.J., drained plenty of shots from just inside the foul line at the home basket, even though he insisted Moore—who was sporting a wide smile the entire time—defend him by raising his hands.

“He loves basketball,” Moore said Tuesday afternoon. “He dragged me out there. I was tired after the game but he was like ‘Let’s practice.’ He wanted to play. And he gets mad when you don’t play for real. He wants you to really play. He wants you to really play defense on him.

“I really see a lot of his father in him. Real fiery competitor, he doesn’t want any handouts. I think he’s going to be a really good kid. I can see a bright future for him.”

It’s a future Moore hopes to have a part in shaping, both as a way of paying tribute to a fallen friend as well as a way of beginning to provide for African-American children the type of foundation he received from his elders as a child growing up in New Haven. Connecticut.

Part of that foundation was provided by T.J. Mathis, who was shot to death in New Haven last Sept. 3. Moore began taking basketball seriously as an eighth-grader, when he held his own in pickup basketball games against other New Haven-area stars such as Mathis.

And while Mathis graduated from Hamden High School just two years before Moore graduated from Hillhouse High School after one of the most successful careers in Connecticut scholastic history (Hillhouse went 54-1 and won consecutive state titles in Moore’s final two seasons), Moore continued to view Mathis as a mentor and role model even as they went on to become college basketball peers and teammates in Connecticut summer basketball leagues. Just hours before Mathis died, he and Moore were at a restaurant celebrating their team’s championship in the Hartford Pro-Am.

“It’s funny: I told his Mom sometimes I catch myself [thinking] what would T.J. do in a situation?” Moore said. “I always looked up to him as a person—his character, how he was somebody you always wanted to be around. I just try to be like that everyday. If I hear somebody talking, I try to be nice, give them a T.J. response. He always put smiles on faces.”

“Honestly, he was one of the best dudes I knew. Just a good all-around guy, good intentions, just a nice guy to everybody. I never really saw him arguing with anybody. He was just a genuine person to be around. Always made you feel good.”

Like Moore, Mathis was someone who steered clear of what Moore called the “negativity” of New Haven and remained focused on playing basketball and parlaying it into an opportunity to earn a college scholarship. Mathis played two years at Morgan State before finishing his career at Division II Mercyhurst.

Moore isn’t shy about expressing his fondness for his hometown, but the randomness and suddenness of Mathis’ death initially had Moore wanting to get as far away as possible from New Haven and its increasing amount of gun violence. The FBI ranked New Haven as the fourth-most violent city, per capita, in America in 2010, and Mathis’ murder—which remains unsolved—was the 25th in New Haven in 2011, making it the deadliest year for the city since 1994.

“After that happened I just had so much anger towards New Haven,” Moore said. “Such a senseless killing, such a good guy. That one really hit home. I knew people that died before, but to lose somebody like him to gun violence—it just had me really upset. I was thinking I’m never going back there. I just didn’t want to go back. I just wanted to move away.”

A few weeks of discussions with his Mom and Mathis’ mother, as well as regular visits to church, helped soften Moore’s feelings and rekindle his original desire to return to New Haven once he’s done playing professionally and offer, as a teacher and a coach, the type of inspiration and direction he received in his formative years.

Moore, who graduated last May with a bachelor’s degree in history and is pursuing his master’s in education, had little contact with his Dad growing up but had plenty of father figures and people looking out for him, both within the New Haven basketball community and the Westville Manor housing projects in which he lived until he was 13 years old.

“I want to go back and educate the youth because I think [there’s] a lot of misguided youth and not enough great father figures or just role models that you can look up to,” Moore said. “I think that people look up to me where I’m from as a positive young black man. I just always had that reputation growing up in New Haven, so I think I could go back and the kids would really listen to me.

“I’ve got a couple cousins that are in the streets, but they always look up to me, they always listen to me when I tell them they’re not doing something right. I think the youth would really respect my opinions.”

The first person Moore is trying to impact is Jair. Moore is quick to note he’s not the only one of Mathis’ friends watching over Jair, but having a positive influence on Jair brings some peace to Moore, especially after he and Mathis spent much of their last day together talking about Jair and how quickly he was growing up.

“The only thing I can hear him saying is ‘Just make sure my son is OK,’” Moore said. “I can never replace T.J. as his father, but I just want to be there in his life [and] guide him the right way.

“Where we come from is not the rosiest of places—I know it can be tough,” Moore said. “I just know I had a lot of mentors in my life. My father wasn’t really in my life too much, but I had a lot of great father figures, guys along the way who just showed me the right way. I just want to be one of those guys for little Jair. I’m pretty sure he has a lot of other people that have his best interests at hand. I just want to show him the right way, on and off the court.”

Jair has a basketball game of his own Saturday but will likely be in attendance at Hofstra Arena just prior to 4 p.m., when Moore will be one of three seniors honored prior to the Flying Dutchmen’s home finale against UNC Wilmington. The festivities will be one of the final acts in a collegiate career that has not lacked for intrigue.

Moore transferred to Hofstra after two seasons at Fordham, and while he has scored more than 1,500 points—including more than 1,000 at Hofstra, a figure only one other transfer has reached—and will almost surely win the CAA scoring title this year, he has endured three losing seasons and two 20-loss campaigns and played under four different coaches, two of whom never actually coached him in a game. One of those coaches, of course, was Tom Pecora, who left for Fordham after Moore’s redshirt season in 2009-10.

Moore admits he’s been frustrated plenty of times as a collegian but that the events of the past five years have sharpened his focus—and that the death of T.J. five-plus months ago put the turmoil of his career in perspective.

“I think it’s made me tougher—a lot of this made me tougher,” Moore said. “A lot of kids probably would have broken down after transferring [and] going through coaches. I can’t control that. A lot of things in life you can’t control. You can’t worry about coaches getting fired or what coach is getting hired or leaving. Just do what you can do.

“I tell people all the time: ‘Hey, it could be worse.’ That’s what I’ve learned in life. Basketball, it’s a game you love—we grew up learning to love the game—but definitely, at the end of the day, life is way more important.”

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

College of Bill Lawrence 75, Hofstra 71 (Or: Their overkill)

Ghosts reappear and a season fades away...

It’s gotten to the point for the Flying Dutchmen where every loss is a microcosm of a lost season. Loss no. 21, a 75-71 defeat at the hands of the College of Bill Lawrence, contained elements omnipresent in so many of its 20 predecessors.

The margin of defeat was certainly familiar: The Dutchmen are now 2-8 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, their most losses in such games since 2007-08 (the last time the Dutchmen endured a sub-.500 season) and the program’s worst winning percentage in these contests since the 1992-93 team went 1-5.

Once again, the Dutchmen did a lot of good things, but once again, their mistakes and missteps once again proved costly. The Dutchmen displayed their trademark resiliency in scoring 11 straight points after falling behind 7-0 and outscoring William & Mary 27-10 in the eight minutes following the Tribe’s hot start. In the second half, the Dutchmen fell behind by as many as seven and closed within at least three points a dozen times but could never take the lead.

Mike Moore all but locked up the CAA scoring title by collecting a game-high 25 points—including a beauty of a bank shot from just inside the half-court line at the halftime buzzer, that’s right, the Dutchmen are now 0-2 in games with halftime half-court buzzer beaters—and his efficiency score of 23 was by far the best of any Hofstra player, but he didn’t score from the field after opening the second half with a layup and missed his last five shots.

Moore and Nathaniel Lester (18 points and a game-high eight rebounds) were again a solid 1-2 combination, but the Dutchmen had just two players in double figures for the seventh time in the last 10 games. Moore, Lester and Moussa Kone (six points on 3-of-3 shooting and five rebounds, including four in a five-minute span late in the second half) were 17-of-37 from the field while the rest of their teammates were 7-of-23. Stevie Mejia, who has been emerging as that reliable third scoring option, picked up nine points, five of which came in a 53-second span before the first media timeout of the first half, and finished just 2-of-9 from the field.

The Dutchmen’s struggles on offense negated their gritty effort on defense in the final minutes. While many of their early narrow losses were marked by an inability to buy a stop on defense in the waning minutes, the Dutchmen limited the Fighting Lawrences to just one field goal on five attempts in the final five minutes Wednesday.

But the Dutchmen were scoreless from the field following a layup by Lester with 4:28 to play and missed five shots with William & Mary clinging to a 71-69 lead. Finally, the Dutchmen had a costly defensive breakdown and surrendered the back-breaking 3-pointer by a wide-open Brandon Britt with 18 seconds left that accounted for the game’s final points.

Overall, the Dutchmen scored on just one of eight possessions in the second half in which they had a chance to tie or take the lead, and that one basket was the afore-mentioned layup by Lester that came with the Dutchmen down three.

Britt’s basket was doubly frustrating because it was another example of what the Dutchmen have largely lacked this season: Someone bailing out a struggling star. Britt’s shot ensured Quinn McDowell, who led the CAA in free throw shooting percentage last season, wouldn’t wear the goat horns after missing three of four free throw attempts in the final two minutes. What if someone had done that for Moore when he missed those two free throws with the chance to take the lead against Delaware seven weeks earlier?

In the end, the defeat served as another reminder of just how difficult it is for the Dutchmen to create even the tiniest bit of momentum. A win would have been the 10th of the season for the Dutchmen and put them in position to earn the 10th seed. That’s no great shakes for a program that has recorded double-digit wins in each of the last 15 seasons and finished in the bottom half of the CAA just twice since the league expanded to 12 teams in 2005-06, but 10 wins and a 10 seed would certainly be more aesthetically pleasing than being stuck on nine wins and being locked into the 11th seed heading into Senior Day.

Instead, the lone solace the Dutchmen could take from Wednesday was knowing Towson locked up last place by losing to Delaware. It’s not much. But on an evening that so accurately summarized a lost season, it’ll have to do.

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. College of Bill Lawrence, 2/22)
3: Mike Moore
2: Nathaniel Lester
1: Moussa Kone

Mike Moore 62
Nathaniel Lester 44
Dwan McMillan 17
Stevie Mejia 15
David Imes 14
Stephen Nwaukoni 10
Shemiye McLendon 9
Moussa Kone 6
Bryant Crowder 2
Matt Grogan 1

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Dutchmen's quest for the imperfect 10

Now that I have your attention! (As I noted two years ago, if you are of a certain age, Kathy Ireland is the 10 in your life.)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when sports geeks like me get to sit down and crunch numbers and figure out all sorts of wild and wooly CAA tiebreakers. This year’s that time of the year features more permutations than last year’s that time of the year, but I’d rather spend less time trying to figure out how the Dutchmen could finish second through fourth than more time on computing the odds of finishing anywhere from ninth through 12th place.

But them’s the breaks, so here’s a quick look at where the Dutchmen stand regarding potential first- and second-round matchups (yes, we’re optimists) entering tonight’s BATTLE FOR 10TH PLACE against the College of Bill Lawrence.

While the Dutchmen can technically finish ninth or 12th, each scenario requires a series of very unlikely longshots coming to fruition. But my middle name is thorough (actually, it’s not), so we’ll get to those in a bit, after going over the most likely possibilities for the Dutchmen—finishing 10th or 11th.

—The Dutchmen (2-14 in CAA play) will finish 10th with a win over William & Mary (3-13) tonight coupled with either a Dutchmen win over UNC Wilmington Saturday or a William & Mary loss to Georgia State. Obviously whomever wins tonight has the tiebreaker, since this is the lone game of the season between the Dutchmen and Fighting Lawrences (hooray unbalanced schedule!)

Finishing 10th would almost certainly mean a first-round game against Northeastern, whose slim chances of finishing sixth require beating George Mason tonight and Delaware losing to Towson. The Huskies (8-8 in CAA play) swept the Dutchmen this season but are skidding lately (1-5 overall since beating Hofstra Jan. 28) and present a better matchup for the Dutchmen than any potential opponents in an 11 vs. 6 game.

Should the Dutchmen beat Northeastern in the first game of the Friday afternoon session, they’d face the second seed in the quarterfinals. Drexel, VCU and George Mason are all in the running for that spot, with the Rams and Patriots (in that order) most likely to finish second. We’ll get to the permutations later in the week if it is required, but I think everyone would rather avoid VCU as long as necessary, both because the Rams wrecked Havoc with the Dutchmen this year and because you never ever ever ever ever want to go 5-on-8 against VCU in Richmond.

—A loss tonight will ensure the Dutchmen can finish no higher than 11th. And the Dutchmen will “clinch” 11th tonight if they lose and Towson loses to Delaware. The Dutchmen could also finish 11th if they win tonight, lose to UNC Wilmington Saturday and William & Mary beats Georgia State in its finale.

The matchup scenarios for an 11 vs. 6 game are murkier with Old Dominion (12-4), Delaware (10-6) and Georgia State (10-6) all in contention for that spot. Georgia State is currently sixth, by virtue of being swept by Delaware, and will be locked into sixth if it loses at home to Old Dominion tonight and Delaware beats Towson. A Dutchmen-Panthers first-round game would be a nightmarish one for the Dutchmen, who were never really in a 59-43 loss to Georgia State Feb. 4.

But the Panthers will have plenty of motivation as they pursue their 20th win on Senior Night this evening, and a victory would put the wheels in motion for a three-way tie at 12-6 tie that would drop Old Dominion into the six spot. Old Dominion finishes by hosting red-hot Drexel, Delaware hosts Northeastern and Georgia State visits William & Mary. In a three-way tie, Delaware would be the no. 4 seed by virtue of going 2-1 against Old Dominion and Georgia State (hooray unbalanced schedule!) while Georgia State would be fifth by virtue of beating the Monarchs (hooray unbalanced schedule!). Of course, facing a Blaine Taylor-coached team furious about ending the school’s streak of never playing on Friday won’t be much fun either. Delaware could also finish sixth, but the Blue Hens will assure themselves no worse than a fifth-place finish by beating Towson tonight.

—As for the longshot scenarios involving Hofstra’s seeding: The Dutchmen could finish ninth, and face eighth-seeded UNC Wilmington in the first game of the tournament, if they win out, James Madison loses out against Drexel and Towson and William & Mary beats Georgia State.

Towson missed a last-second chance to tie or win the game in a two-point loss to James Madison Dec. 11 and could very well beat the injury-wracked Dukes, whose head coach, Matt Brady, blew out his Achilles practicing with the team last week. But it’s hard to see William & Mary losing tonight and then beating Georgia State. Plus, let’s face it, even if James Madison loses out and the Tribe knock off the Panthers, the Dutchmen would also have to win as many CAA games in the final four days of the regular season as they won in the first 81. We’re optimistic here, but the odds aren’t in favor of that happening.

—The real longshot is the Dutchmen falling all the way to 12th, which happens only if they lose out and Towson (1-15) sweeps Delaware and James Madison. Hofstra wins any tie with the Tigers thanks to the Dutchmen’s win on Feb. 1 (hooray unbalanced schedule!). The Dutchmen could certainly lose their final two games, but it’s tough to see Towson winning its last two, especially with a roadie at scorching Delaware tonight.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In which I release the hounds on C. Montgomery Larranaga

And the hounds with the bees in their mouths!

For months now I’ve felt a little bit like Carlos Beltran, regretting what might have been if I hadn’t let that strike three sail past me with the pennant on the line. I mean, how could I resist the opportunity to properly celebrate Jim Larranaga’s glorious exit from George Mason?

As you no doubt know, he bolted Mason and headed south to Miami, like any good New York native bound for retirement, on April 22. Well, except by the time he got to Miami, he was no longer Jimmy from the Bronx but Jaime whose heritage is Cuban and whose family is all based in Florida. Seriously. Whatever.

Anyway, I dubbed that day GREAT FRIDAY and spent the next six to eight months streaking naked around my neighborhood screaming “DING DONG THE WITCH IS GONE!” which left me barely enough time to do my soul-crushing day job work, never mind put my ebullient thoughts into words.

Since then I’ve missed multiple chances to tie Larranaga’s exit into a newsworthy event. I laughed when karma punched him in the groin and the Miami men’s basketball team was dragged into the scandal involving rouge Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro. Then I cursed when, voila, another Larranaga-coached player who commits misdeeds (albeit before Larranaga got there—everything is his fault!) is magically allowed to play after a minimal punishment.

And I REALLY laughed when Andre Cornelius, whose foolishness on Twitter fueled VCU’s NCAA Tournament-clinching win over Mason in last year’s CAA semifinals, continued to serve as the poster boy for recidivism amongst Larranaga recruits when he got arrested for credit card fraud and was suspended the entire first semester by Paul Hewitt. (Under Larranaga, Cornelius would have been credited for time served and never missed a second of game action)

I didn’t get catty in print (or pixels) when Larranaga rejoined Twitter and name-dropped every C-level celebrity he saw in and around Miami, or when he signed a 272-year extension (or so) after a mere 18 games. I even missed a couple chances to write about Larranaga prior to a Hofstra-Mason game, but chose to spotlight my buddies in Mason Nation instead.

I kept putting off the Larranaga piece, because writing how you feel after the neighborhood bully up and moves to Florida on zero notice is a delicate exercise. As The Heights might have said, if only they were a real group that had a chance to record a sequel to its no. 1 single and not a fake group on TV whose show was cancelled before they hit the top of the charts: How do you write about the devil?


I figured my window was closed. I’d have to keep my thoughts in my head and live with the regret of never giving Jim Larranaga the sendoff he deserved.

But thank the heavens for Jaime Larranaga, because all he does is keep lifting that window open and giving me ample opportunity to finally rant and rave and tell you all what I’ve been keeping inside for 305 days, but who’s counting, and to yell, over and over again: I TOLD YOU SO.

It happened again yesterday, when that giant gust of hot air you felt around lunchtime was Larranaga spewing lies, damned lies and faulty statistics about how his Miami squad is more deserving of an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament than a mid-major. You can get the entire exchange between Larranaga and Daily Press (Virginia) columnist David Teel—or, as he is now known in my house, THE GREATEST WRITER ON EARTH—here.

The beauty of this is Teel clearly wasn’t trying to goad Larranaga into blowing up Twitter. He was just asking how a coach in Larranaga’s position keeps his players from getting too distracted by bubble talk. Innocent enough.

But it was Larranaga who furthered the discussion by bad-mouthing this year’s crop of elite mid-majors, which left Teel no choice but to ask follow-up questions that allowed Larranaga to continue saying stupid, inaccurate stuff—ABOUT GEORGE MASON, NO LESS—and to keep digging himself so deep a hole, he has to look up to see China.

Teel disproved, point by puke-inducing point, all of Larranaga’s lies about Mason’s sub-300 non-conference RPI, the dearth of quality mid-majors, the history of at-large bids awarded to teams with an RPI below 50, as well as his patently false assertion that mid-majors with RPIs in the 100-150 range are being discussed as at-large possibilities, all with the type of detached reason I wish I could muster (actually I don’t—this makes me feel ALIVE, man). I only wish he’d asked who was in charge of putting together Masons pissposh non-conference schedule. Gosh, I don’t know, maybe the guy who was there last year?

There was a way for Larranaga to make a case for Miami without badmouthing anyone, ESPECIALLY the school that made him rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams and allowed him to have the type of success that “earned” him the Miami job. There was even a way to declare that the mid-major crop this year isn’t as strong as last year and that a borderline BCS team such as his deserves more consideration.

But the napalming of bridges yesterday reminded me of the style in which Larranaga left Mason—or, more accurately, the style in which he introduced himself at Miami. In opening his initial press conference, Larranaga gushed over Mason president Alan Merten and the players he left behind but didn’t refer to Mason athletic director Tom O’Connor once. Normally, as someone who only refers to O’Connor with a bunch of four-letter words, I wouldn’t mind this oversight.

But even if Larranaga hated O’Connor—and how foolish is that, hating the one person responsible for getting Mason into the 2006 NCAA Tournament by “not being in the room” when Mason was discussed—the right thing and the classy thing to do would be to thank O’Connor as well. Tom Pecora didn’t leave Hofstra as besties with Jack Hayes and Stuart Rabinowitz—especially Rabinowitz—but he referenced and spoke well of both men in his opening remarks at Fordham in March 2010. That’s what you do.

Despite the strained relations at the end of his Hofstra tenure, Pecora left in a classy style consistent with the words he spoke and the morals he espoused throughout his nine-year tenure. A man who suffered unimaginable grief before he reached the big time preached family and comfort first, and spoke often and eloquently of how much he enjoyed coaching in his backyard, and promised he would not leave the tri-state area. And he didn’t.

Larranaga? Yesterday was just another example of how everything he ever said at Mason was a steaming pile of crap, as was his reputation as a golly-gee good guy and a principled man who valued integrity over victory.

The man used to be a veritable Mount St. Helens, spewing verbal ash about what a great place George Mason is, how great it is to live in the Fairfax area and how life was far better in the CAA than it could be anywhere else. Like he did here, here and here.

In an interview with The New York Times last March 27, Larranaga said it “…is really no longer true” that “…there [is] a big difference between the best teams in the high-major leagues and the best teams in the midmajor leagues.” The next day, in an interview with the Associated Press, he unfurled the statistics supporting his belief the CAA was better than the ACC and the Big East in the only place it mattered—the NCAA Tournament.

The morning of the national championship game Apr. 4, after a week of glomming his way into all the coverage of VCU and Butler, Larranaga spoke to Kyle Whelliston of The Mid-Majority and, in praising Brad Stevens as the next John Wooden, also preached “…the five non-negotiable building blocks of success,” which he identified as “humility, passion, unity, servanthood, thankfulness.”

Speaking of Stevens, Larranaga said “…he’s never going to leave for the sake of leaving. He’s only going to leave if it’s the absolute right situation. He’s guided not by a hunger for money, but by strong bedrock principles that he lives his life by.”

A mere 18 days later, everyone else learned about Larranaga’s principles when he stood at Miami and gushed about how he looked forward to the chance to “compete at the highest level of basketball” in the ACC, “…the best basketball league in the country.”

Everything he said earlier was, of course, a pile of crap, and he left this great gig in a great conference because his ego couldn’t handle no longer being the big boy on the block or the decline in stature now that someone else in the CAA had gone to the Final Four. You’d think a man who preached such tenants would rather be comfortable with his legacy than die with the most toys, and that he would feel a certain affinity for Shaka Smart while recognizing the going rate for striking while the iron is hot has shot up faster than the price of gasoline since 2006.

Nothing he says is believable, or said with any purpose other than promoting Jaime Larranaga. He is the worst kind of politician—the Newt Gingrich of college basketball, someone who thinks no one will notice if he ignores his own history and wants the rules of campaigning changed for him at his convenience. And everyone knows it now—even his one-time devotees in Mason Nation, only the most pathetic of whom remain by his side now. I told you so. Damn, that felt good. Worth the wait.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hofstra 81, Siena 69 (Or: Mejia gives Dutchmen reason to believe in a place called Hope)

Check out the cast of characters on stage at the end of this performance. Fever dream-esque.

Stevie Mejia wasn’t just reading from The Athlete’s Book Of Clich├ęs when he declared he was just happy to be part of a win Saturday. He’d waited a long time for an afternoon like the one he and the Flying Dutchmen enjoyed when they pulled away late (no, really, I swear!) in a 81-69 win over Siena in the I-now-think-these-are-superduper-because-we-won-a-freaking-game Bracket Busters.

It was the first victory for the Dutchmen with Mejia in the starting lineup since Dec. 17 against Binghamton, when Mejia, still hampered by the hamstring injury that ended up costing him six games, was scoreless in a 82-62 win. For all intents and purposes, Saturday was the first win in which Mejia really contributed as a starter since Nov. 26—a mere 12 weeks earlier—against Cleveland State, when he had 10 points in what still stands as the Dutchmen’s most impressive win of the season.

“I feel great just having the win with my teammates, just feeling happy out there,” Mejia said. “It doesn’t matter what my stats are. I just want to win.”

A nice sentiment, but Mejia is wrong. His stats REALLY matter. Mejia didn’t produce the biggest numbers Saturday (Mike Moore had 30 points, including six 3-pointers), but he was the most valuable player on the floor for the Dutchmen.

Mejia set career highs—dating back to his days at Rhode Island—with 16 points, six field goals (on 11 attempts) and four 3-pointers (on seven attempts). All four treys gave the Dutchmen the lead, including the two he drained on consecutive trips just after the under-8 timeout in the second half, when he gave the Dutchmen the lead right after Siena took its last lead and broke a tie to give the Dutchmen the lead for good, respectively.

Mejia also had six assists and just one turnover—which he “committed” while dribbling out the clock with less than five seconds to go, no wonder Jim Larranaga never recruited him—while recording four steals, the second time in three games he’s had at least four steals.

In addition, Mejia made all three of his rebounds count: He grabbed his own miss and hit a jumper to spark a 12-2 run at the start of the second half and helped ice the game by pulling down Moore’s miss as the shot clock expired with 1:12 to play and outhustling Siena for a defensive rebound 18 seconds later.

It was no coincidence the Dutchmen had their best offensive day of 2012 with Mejia thriving. The 81 points were the Dutchmen’s most since they scored 83 against Iona Dec. 29. They shot 45.2 percent overall, ending a streak of eight straight games in which the Dutchmen shot 41 percent or less, and an impressive 47.8 percent from 3-point land, their finest performance since the Binghamton game.

“It’s amazing—[the ball] goes in the basket and all of a sudden we’re better on defense, we have a little more energy,” Mo Cassara said. “I think we got some different types of baskets—we got some transition baskets, we got some drives, we got some free throws, we got some extra passes and kickouts and some different guys made shots I think when different guys make some shots other than Mike or Nat, all of a sudden it gives everybody else a lot of confidence and they just can’t key on Mike or just can’t key on Nat.”

That third option suddenly looks like Mejia, who has more than half as many field goals in his last four games (15-of-40) as he did in his first 19 (29-of-82). That’s pretty impressive considering he was 0-for-8 against Drexel nine days ago. And Mejia has scored in double figures in three of his last four games, which is as many double-digit efforts as he had in his first 89 collegiate games.

“I’m just more confident now, back from injury,” Mejia said. “I feel like I’m 100 percent [since] two weeks ago [against] George Mason. After that game I’ve just been real confident.”

Mejia’s emergence is a huge factor for a team that hasn’t had a reliable outside shooter other than Moore. It took until Saturday—and a total of 52 games—for Mejia and Shemiye McLendon to finally exceed Brad Kelleher’s 34 3-pointers in just 25 games last season.

“That’s really what we’ve been looking for,” Cassara said, referring to a third scoring option. “If you go back through our season, it’s one or two shots in every game. A couple of those shots go in along the course of the year, probably a few different numbers up there. Tonight, that’s what gave us some confidence.”

Who knows it’s sustainable in CAA play, but fueled largely by Mejia, the Dutchmen produced a pretty good template for winning Saturday while also mounting their biggest comeback win of the season (Siena led 32-25 with three minutes left in the first half) and finally finishing a team off in the final few minutes.

Tri-captains Moore, Mejia and Nathaniel Lester (15 points) were the Dutchmen’s three double-digit scorers. The trio scored all 12 the Dutchmen’s points in a 12-2 run that opened the second half, and Moore buried the Saints in a four-possession stretch spanning the final media timeout with a jumper, a 3-pointer and two free throws off his own steal to spark a game-ending 12-2 run in which the Dutchmen scored the final 10 points.

“It usually comes down to the six, seven minute mark where we either lose the game or win the game,” Moore said. “Today a couple shots fell and guys stuck to it. We just fought along to win the game.”

Starters scored the Dutchmen’s first 66 points and 74 points overall, but one-time sixth man Shemiye McLendon provided seven big points in the final 5:44 as well as five assists. On an afternoon in which behemoth Siena forward O.D. Anosike—whom Cassara called the best big man Hofstra has faced all season—had more rebounds by himself (12) than any two Dutchmen, Stephen Nwaukoni pulled down six rebounds and had a go-ahead 3-point play right after Siena took its first lead of the second half.

Mejia and Dwan McMillan combined for 13 assists and just three turnovers and sparked a swarming defense that forced 21 turnovers, including nine in Siena’s first 11 possessions as the Dutchmen raced out to a 10-0 lead. The 21/10 assist-to-turnover ratio was the best of the season for the Dutchmen.

“We’re down to seven scholarship players and we have to keep finding different guys to step up and make plays,” Cassara said. “Stevie and Dwan can really hawk the ball and we’ve had [a few] games we’ve turned a team over 21 times, so at least we’re creating some extra possessions for ourselves. Obviously we’ve had to change a little bit of the way we play and I think that’s been a really positive thing for us.”

And after an overwhelmingly negative CAA season, the Dutchmen have found something on which they can build. No, it’s not very likely the Dutchmen found the winning formula in game no. 29. But hey. The last time a Dutchmen team was 9-20 after 29 games was 1993-94. We all know what happened then.

“We’ve got a chance here the next two games—I told the team William & Mary is the most important game of our season on Wednesday,” Cassara said. “It’s a game where we have a chance to tie them, at least, in the league, a chance to win a tiebreaker, a chance to position ourselves a little better in the CAA Tournament. And then we come back here for Senior Day and then obviously we’re going to give it all we’ve got in the first round of the CAA Tournament.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Siena, 2/18)
3: Stevie Mejia
2: Mike Moore
1: Nathaniel Lester

Mike Moore 59
Nathaniel Lester 42
Dwan McMillan 17
Stevie Mejia 15
David Imes 14
Stephen Nwaukoni 10
Shemiye McLendon 9
Moussa Kone 5
Bryant Crowder 2
Matt Grogan 1

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Saturday, February 18, 2012

You know what really grinds my gears?

This one's for you, @VABeachRep & @gheorghetheblog!

I’m in a bad mood. I know. Shocking, right? Cynical bastard who figured his favorite teams only went 2-14 in the NFL now watching his alma mater lock up its worst conference record ever with two games still to play. What else would I be but in a bad mood?

But my bad mood has little to do with the Flying Dutchmen’s historically rough season and more to do with what I see as I gaze over at my beloved blog, which shows a measly nine posts this month, including just three non-recaps. That’s awful. For comparison’s sake, I had 32 entries last February, 29 in February 2010 and 23 in February 2009. (And the idea for Defiantly Dutch popped into my head at the end of February 2008, a day or two after I got fired by email)

Of course, I wasn’t working as much the previous three Februarys as I am now, so that’s good. And it’s frustrating, because it leaves me precious little time to do what I love and even four years later I still grouse over how I am no longer writing sports for a living.

And it really grinds my gears that I’ve got two full-length column/story ideas that I don’t have the time to write, nor enough days to post them, so I’m forced to condense them into one entry here on Saturday morning. Which is probably a better idea anyway since blogs are supposed to be short and not the novels I like to produce. Anyway. Here’s what’s grinding my gears.

—Bracket Busters. Or is it BracketBusters? I don’t care. It’s a pain in the ass. It’s a pain in the ass every year. I whined about it three years ago this weekend, and whined about it to a lesser degree in 2010, and whined about it not at all because Charles Jenkins made us all so happy in 2011, so I won’t subject you to elongated rantings here.

Bracket Busters have become generally useless to the vast majority of participants and harmful to half the teams it is supposed to help. Indeed, Bracket Busters create mid-on-mid crime three weeks before the dopes on the Selection Committee get into a room and get busy pitting pesky mids against one another in the first two rounds (more on those guys shortly).

And for every game that pits two teams with legitimate at-large hopes, there are dozens like Hofstra-Siena that serve as fodder for 140-character cheap shots delivered by establishment writers all too eager to maintain the caste system that exists in Division I college basketball.

As I noted in my initial Bracket Busters rant, the Dutchmen have had legitimate at-large hopes just once since ESPN created this monstrosity in 2003. The BBs were just an annoyance the last three seasons, when the Dutchmen had no at-large hopes but at least could have used the game to try and bolster their resume for one of the consolation tournaments.

This year, though, the Dutchmen are a resounding 8-20, which I’m pretty sure is bad enough to even knock a team out of CBI contention. So this is a true no-win game for the Dutchmen, who need an encouraging victory in the worst way yet won’t get anything out of this even if they blow out Siena so badly that Fran McCaffrey’s wife berates an official in Iowa City.

And while a loss won’t really count either, it’ll be something a reeling team doesn’t need. Plus, the more games the depleted Dutchmen play, the more likely they are to suffer more injuries and the more likely Mo Cassara is to have to call me out of the stands. (Hey I shot some 3-pointers and even made a couple at the PFC the other night, I’m ready to go)

I’m pretty sure the UNC Wilmington plane making an emergency landing on its way to New York for the Seahawks’ game against Manhattan (THROW OUT THE RECORDS WHEN THE JASPERS HOST THE SEAHAWKS!) was a sign from above that Bracket Busters have long outlived their usefulness. But of course ESPN will never heed it and will instead beat us over the head for years to come with programming disguised as news. Me, I’d rather watch Australian Rules Football. Rouge!

—You know what else really grinds my gears? The mock selection (yeah, I’m not giving it proper name treatment) going on this week in which the Selection Committee (shouldn’t give those crooks the proper name treatment either) invites selected basketball writers to participate in the college basketball version of fantasy baseball.

In theory, it’s a really interesting exercise: Spending two days doing what the committee does over five days in March allows writers and fans to get a glimpse at the process and better understand what goes into it. In reality, selective transparency is more insulting than shedding no light at all on the process and one giant crock of crap thinly disguised as a cynical PR ploy.

The NCAA gets reams of free publicity (for an event people are already anticipating, but I digress) and shapes how it is perceived in the weeks leading up to Selection Sunday and the days after it. Almost unanimously, the writers gush about how hard a job it was and how thankless a task the committee has. (Though here is a refreshingly cynical and critical take) That in turn influences the coverage of these writers in three weeks and makes them less likely to hammer the committee for its myriad mistakes and agenda-based decision-making, because human nature makes you less likely to hammer people you know and people who were nice to you.

A mock selection also provides the NCAA dual protection. Not only can it point to the mock selection as proof that nefarious stuff doesn’t go on behind closed doors (even though the mock selection takes place two-plus weeks before the doors close), it can also rely on the time-honored tradition of smugly declaring those who criticize the committee can’t possibly do a better job of things. Or, more accurately, it can rely on well-compensated guardians of the gate such as Seth Davis to do the dirty work.

Of course, since 2006 we all know the truth and we know the type of criminal activity that goes on behind the aforementioned closed doors. I wonder if the mock selection showed athletic directors “exiting the room” when their teams came under discussion? Or showed how the committee comes up with ways to “coincidentally” pair mid-majors in the first and second rounds? Of course it didn’t. Because that doesn’t happen, snicker snicker snort snort.

On the bright side, even in a mock selection, we get to see the committee show it has no earthly idea what it is talking about. This week’s mock selection sent Old Dominion to the NCAA Tournament as the CAA champion. Now, it’s possible the two-time defending champion Monarchs will emerge again as the tournament champion in 16 days despite being seeded fourth, fifth or sixth in Richmond.

But at the moment, the Monarchs are BY FAR the weakest of the CAA’s current top four. Old Dominion is 12-0 against the teams behind it in the standings and 0-4 against VCU and George Mason with a game still remaining against Drexel. And ODU’s RPI is in the high 120s, a good 40 or more spots lower than the CAA’s top three. Anyone who has paid attention to the CAA this year recognizes that while the Monarchs are solid, this is a transition year for Blaine Taylor’s group.

Again: The Monarchs might win it all, but nothing on their resume this year suggests they will be the team to earn the CAA’s automatic bid. So why in the hell would a mock selection—one that is supposed to give a reasonable approximation of the real thing—dubbing them the champions instead of Drexel, George Mason or VCU? Because there’s never been anything so aptly dubbed as the mock selection, that’s why.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at