Just before the first game of the 2010-11 season, I implored Flying Dutchmen fans to follow Mo Cassara’s advice and invite 10 friends to a Hofstra game because Cassara’s first Dutchmen squad was a captivating team, filled with potential, intriguing storylines and a future NBA player, that needed and deserved support from the locals.
For the first time in my life, I was right AND people listened to me (I’m usually just right). Charles Jenkins defied description, the Dutchmen were quite good (they finished tied for second in the CAA) and people showed up in droves, or at least droves by Hofstra standards. Proving once again that Long Island does a fine job of front-running, the Dutchmen performed in front of two sellout crowds and saw their average attendance rise by almost 400 fans per game.
As tends to be the case, though, once the gate attraction graduated and the program endured a year after slump, the fans decided to stay at home and watch, umm, whatever is on TV Saturdays at 4 pm and midweek nights at 7 pm. Jenkins is playing for the Golden State Warriors, the Dutchmen are 8-16 and 2-10 in the CAA and the average attendance in 13 games at Hofstra Arena is 2,320—a decline of more than 700 fans from a year ago.
Beginning tomorrow, the Dutchmen will be home three of the next four Saturdays, which should provide a bit of a boost to the year-end numbers, but let’s face it, I’ve seen this movie before and I know how it ends: With acres of empty seats watching a sub-.500 team.
Which is a shame, because while the Dutchmen are stumbling this year, they are, in a way, even more compelling and deserving of support than a year ago. As you no doubt know—and once again, I have slipped into preaching-to-the-choir mode, because if you are reading this, you not only know how the Dutchmen are doing this year but the gut-wrenching fashion in which they got to this point, just bear with me, I am rambling here—the Dutchmen have patented the near-miss with seven losses by six points or less, including four in which the winning points were scored in the final 20 seconds, and 12 losses by 10 points or less. Despite losing twice as much as they’ve won, the Dutchmen’s net point differential is a mere negative-11.
The Dutchmen were 0-7 against the top five teams in the CAA last month but led Old Dominion by 13 points in the first half in Norfolk, played VCU to a dead heat in Richmond for a little more than a half, raced out to 9-0 leads at home against both Northeastern and George Mason, jumped out to a 6-0 lead against Drexel at home and had a chance to tie the score or take the lead in the final 20 seconds at home against Northeastern, Drexel and George Mason.
Of course, as the record indicates, this is an imperfect bunch—not imperfect in the way the rest of us are imperfect basketball players, but imperfect in that, for whatever reason, they have tiny flaws that have been magnified in a league in which the difference between winning and losing is microscopic.
Mike Moore is prone to getting frustrated and forcing ill-advised shots when he’s either draped or not getting shots. Nathaniel Lester can be either a bit too aggressive (as when he tried forcing a foul along the baseline and instead turned the ball over in the waning seconds of the first game against Northeastern and kicked a ball away on a fast break in Boston last weekend) or not aggressive enough, as when he waits a split-second too long to go back up with the bal under the basket.
Dwan McMillan, who is shooting 35 percent from the field and 63 percent from the foul line while fashioning a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio in CAA play, is probably a bit stretched as the starting point guard. Stevie Mejia was supposed to be the starter, but a lingering hamstring injury has hampered him physically and mentally.
David Imes has shot 50 percent or better in 12 games—and 33 percent or less in 10 games. Sixth man Shemiye McLendon is now the eighth man, thanks largely to a suddenly flat shot and a protracted slump in which he’s made just four of 24 3-pointers in his last nine games. Big men Stephen Nwaukoni and Moussa Kone are very raw. Bryant Crowder is Jackson State’s problem now.
Many teams in the Dutchmen’s seemingly hopeless position—we’ll get into the gargantuan task of saving the season at the CAA Tournament in a bit—would have packed it in for the season or lacked the resiliency to keep bouncing back. One and/or the other pretty much happened in Jay Wright’s second season, when the Dutchmen opened the season by splitting their first 14 games before falling to Northeastern on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. That began a nine-game losing streak for the Dutchmen, who ended up losing 11 of their final 13 games by an average of almost 17 points per game, Each of their final 10 losses was a double-digit affair.
But this is not an 8-16 team, in terms of either makeup or talent, and while frustration has seeped into their play at times, the Dutchmen have never quit. Now, of course, it’s easy to say an honest effort should be expected regardless of circumstance. But it says a lot about the players—as well as Cassara—that the effort has remained pure.
“I called Jack [Hayes] last night on my way home,” Cassara said after the Dutchmen beat Towson, 74-49, Wednesday night. “I said ‘You know, we just had another really good practice. That’s the sign of a team that hasn’t given up. That’s a sign of a team that’s continuing to work hard.”
It also says a lot about Cassara that he takes Dutchmen losses so badly that you are tempted to beat him to his Point Lookout home and empty the silverware drawer of forks and knives. Cassara didn’t get much sleep when the Dutchmen were the feel-good story of the regular season last year (thank you very much VCU for stealing our thunder once the NCAA Tournament got underway), so you can imagine his state of mind in the late nights and early mornings this year.
This team and these players will not define the Cassara Era at Hofstra. The guys who will do that are either still in high school or sitting at the end of the bench in warmups for every home game this season: Transfers Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Taran Buie, redshirt freshman Jordan Allen and, perhaps, Fresno State transfer Daquan Brown, who is enrolled at Hofstra this semester and hopes to get a hardship waiver and be ruled eligible by the NCAA for next season. (Daquan, if you’re reading this, Google “Brad Kelleher” and get comfortable in those sweats)
Some coaches in Cassara’s position would view a team like this as a write-off, speak early and often of how good next year will be and fret only about how this year will impact his win-loss record when he pursues his next gig. But Cassara coaches every game, and takes every loss, as if his career is riding on it. The enduring image of this season is Cassara running alongside a basketball skittering near the Hofstra bench during the James Madison game, as if he was going to dive after it himself.
As I asked a little less than 15 months ago: How can you not support a team like this? Coming out to the Arena for the first of the final four home games tomorrow is a chance for you to get in on the ground floor and say you were there at the beginning of the revival, even if it will almost certainly take until at least next year for us to all rise in unison after Cassara leads Hofstra to the promised land (since 2001-02, only one team that has started CAA play as poorly as the Dutchmen has won even one CAA Tournament game).
More importantly, it is a chance to support the seniors whose focus and commitment hasn’t wavered even as their last lap around the track has been anything but storybook. McMillan, who will end up spending less than a season-and-a-half in a Hofstra uniform thanks to the eye injury he suffered after 11 games last season—just beyond the point at which he would have still been eligible for a redshirt—has turned into the Dutchmen’s vocal leader and one hell of an entertaining player to watch. Don’t believe me? Watch what he does with the basketball and the referee the next time he’s at the free throw line.
Going all the way back to his high school days in Connecticut, Moore has never been thrust into the position of trying to create for others. He’ll lapse into old habits, but he’s trying: Moore has matched or exceeded his previous single-game high for assists (five) three times this season, all in the last 12 games. Lester had 22 double-digit scoring efforts in his first three seasons but 20 already this year and scored the 1,000th point of his career Wednesday—not bad for someone who wasn’t even on pace for 900 points at the start of the season.
Nobody’s dug deeper—in both the symbolic and literal senses—than Moore and Lester, each of whom are fifth-year seniors who embody the student-athlete ideal. Moore graduated in four years despite transferring to Hofstra after his sophomore year—it took me five-and-a-half years to do that, and I certainly wasn’t spending several hours a day in the gym and a chunk of the year on the road—and is getting his master’s in education. Lester, who came back for a redshirt senior year after missing last season with a quad injury, graduated in three-and-a-half years and is pursuing a master’s in linguistics.
Half a decade removed from high school, college life has to be growing a bit tedious for Moore, who turns 23 in May, and Lester, who turns 77—err, 24—in April. After putting in so much time with the program, they deserve a better reward than this, yet they show up for work everyday and hold out hope their final few weeks of college basketball will be memorable ones.
“It’s a credit to these two guys,” Cassara said as he was flanked by Lester and Moore following the loss to George Mason. “They continue to have positive attitudes. I’m really proud of them. I know that they’re incredibly frustrated. This is their senior year and they want nothing more than to win.”
The resolve is trickling down to the underclassmen as well: Less than half an hour after the Dutchmen won Wednesday night, Imes—who was just 1-of-8 from the field in the victory—was on the Arena floor taking dozens of jump shots.
The Dutchmen haven’t quit. Neither should you. Be there tomorrow with 10 friends.