Thursday, March 22, 2012

What could have been for Drexel is a familiar tale for Hofstra

Lightning never strikes twice. Unless teh selection committee is involved.

Way back when Drexel was in the midst of its penultimate winning streak of the season and dominating the CAA, the thought crossed my mind that I should write something about how the Dragons represent what Hofstra could have been.

Just imagine if the Flying Dutchmen had lived up to the hype as the preseason pick to win the CAA in 2006-07—i.e. the year after the Dutchmen were screwed from within. Drexel, of course, was picked to win it all this year and finished first in the regular season.

And Drexel’s young and loaded roster brought to mind what could have been for Hofstra if the program hadn’t been decimated after Tom Pecora’s departure two years ago, when it appeared the Dutchmen were on the verge of emerging again as a title contender. (Think about this: Charles Jenkins-Chaz Williams-Mike Moore-Halil Kanacevic-Greg Washington with Nathaniel Lester as the sixth man last year, Williams-Moore-Kanacevic-David Imes-freshman/sophomore recruit this year. Then join me in weeping.)

But I decided to wait on writing that, figuring I didn’t want to hex the Dragons. Yes, I was rooting for Drexel to win the CAA. You’d have to be from north of Virginia to understand. Of course, the hex we all had to worry about was unavoidable, and top-seeded Drexel fell to second-seeded VCU in the CAA title game by three points playing in front of about 10,800 VCU fans at the Richmond Coliseum. I shouldn’t have to spell out what is absurd about the preceding sentence.

Drexel’s CAA demise was no surprise, nor was the royal screw job it received six days later at the hands of teh selection committee (which is, now and forever, its official moniker). We knew it was happening as soon as Frantz Massenat’s 3-pointer bounced high off the rim and to the floor in the final seconds March 5. So, too, did most Drexel fans, who, don’t forget, already went through this in 2007.

Knowing what would happen didn’t make the inevitable any less infuriating, as you may have gathered from reading my Twitter feed since Selection Sunday. And so instead of wondering what might have been for Hofstra as we watched Drexel in the NCAA Tournament, we instead watched the Dragons in the NIT and took a trip back in time to 2006, when the Dutchmen went on a run that was remarkably similar to the one that ended for Drexel in the quarterfinals Tuesday night, when Chris Fouch’s desperate midcourt heave missed the mark as time expired in the Dragons 72-70 loss to Williams (sigh) and UMass.

Like Hofstra in 2006, Drexel was inexplicably saddled with a no. 3 seed by the NIT, whose selection committee is even more crooked than the NCAA’s, despite being the best team left out of the NCAA Tournament. NIT selection committee chairman and all-around good ol’ boy C.M. Newton told ESPN The Magazine in 2008 that he’s brought to the NIT “…an element of fairness now that maybe wasn’t there before, in the seeding and bracketing,” that “…teams ought to be rewarded for great seasons” and the NIT is “…a true basketball tournament and not a made-for-TV reality show.” Oh. OK then.

Like the Dutchmen (Nebraska) six years ago, the Dragons opened NIT play by throttling a major conference foe (Central Florida) in the first round. The bracket went bonkers around Drexel just as it did for Hofstra in 2006: No. 2 Saint Joseph’s lost its opener to Northern Iowa, which gave the Dragons another home game. On Saturday, top-seeded Seton Hall lost to fifth-seeded UMass, which meant Drexel earned the right to host the quarterfinal at the DAC—where it was 15-0 this season—by edging Northern Iowa 65-63 Sunday.

In 2006, top-seeded Maryland lost its opener against ninth-seeded Manhattan. Two nights later, the Dutchmen toppled no. 2 Saint Joseph’s 77-75 and ensured it would host the quarterfinal against fifth-seeded Old Dominion at Hofstra Arena, where the Dutchmen were 14-0.

The Dutchmen seemed on the verge of blowing the game open early in the second half, but the CAA rival Monarchs stormed back for a 61-51 win. Old Dominion ended the game on a 37-19 run.

On Tuesday night, two days shy of the sixth anniversary of Hofstra’s loss in the NIT quarterfinals, Drexel led UMass—a program with whom it shares a great deal of history, as noted in this excellent feature from Monday by Philahoops.com’s Aaron Bracy—by 17 with 16:36 to play last night but was outscored 36-17 the rest of the way.

Falling one win shy of the NIT Final Four in nearby New York City and recording a school-record 29 wins left Drexel and its fans with the same sense of empty vindication the Dutchmen and their faithful (i.e. me, my wife and Sully Ray) felt after a school-record 26-win season six years ago.

As with the Dutchmen, winning two NIT games proved the Dragons should have been in the big tournament. And those pair of victories also proved Drexel had the mental fortitude to go along with its impressive record, because it’s tough for a team to get revved up for the consolation tournament after it has been robbed of a berth in the real one.

The performance of two of the three teams teh selection committee picked over Drexel also validated the Dragons, just as it did for Hofstra in 2006. Back then, it was Air Force (lost to Wyoming in the Mountain West QUARTERFINALS) and Utah State (lost to Nevada at Nevada in the Western Athletic title game but had an RPI at least 15 spots lower than Hofstra’s) getting waxed in the first round that served as proof those teams didn’t deserve to be anywhere near the NCAA Tournament.

This year, Iona squandered a 25-point lead—the biggest blown lead in the history of the NCAA Tournament—in falling to BYU in a first four (yeah, NCAA, I’ll proper name what I want to proper name) game. A night later, California scored 13 points in the first half against South Florida, which ended up winning another game before it was knocked out in the second round (yeah, NCAA, I’ll call the Round of 32 the second round, thank you very much). Sure beats watching one of the last teams in make the Final Four, doesn’t it?

Of course, just like with Air Force, Utah State and YOU-KNOW-WHO over Hofstra six years ago, those squads never should have been there instead of Drexel in the first place. South Florida lost as many games to CAA opponents as Drexel. California proved what anyone with a set of working eyes already knew—the Pac-12 deserved multiple NCAA bids about as much as the Great West. Iona lost in the semifinals of its conference tournament, which was played at an actual neutral site, and had ugly losses to sub-.500 squads Hofstra and Siena.

Drexel, meanwhile, won 19 in a row until losing to VCU at VCU’s de facto home court, went 16-2 in the no. 13 conference in the land (Iona went 15-3 in the MAAC, which was no. 18) and suffered all six of its regular season losses to teams that reached a postseason tournament

In addition, Drexel suffered ALL its losses this year with a compromised roster. Fouch (off-season knee surgery) missed the first four games of the season, during which the Dragons went 2-2, and he scored just eight points over 33 minutes in his first two games back against Saint Joseph’s and Delaware, both of which Drexel lost. And guard Derrick Thomas was suspended for the CAA Tournament—think the Dragons could have used him when they played their starters for 178 out of a possible 200 minutes in the title game?—but was reinstated after assault charges against him were dropped.

Alas, it wasn’t enough. Just like the Dutchmen six years ago, the Dragons were victimized by a committee of crooks that answers to no one and has no checks and balances in place to keep it from continually pushing back the goalposts. Every year, the committee asks mid-majors to boot 64-yard field goals to earn at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, then, after the kick sails through the uprights, declares it had to be good from 74 yards, except occasionally when kicking it 54 yards was good enough.

Such was the case with Iona, which survived a semifinal exit in its conference tournament by “scheduling up” in November and December. The Gaels went 6-3 in away or neutral site non-conference games (including a one-point loss to Purdue) and were 14-5 in away or neutral site games during the regular season.

“Road wins are a big thing for me,” selection committee vice chairman Mike “Bobo the Clown” Bobinski told Philahoops.com Selection Sunday. “I like to see teams that are willing to challenge themselves away from home. Teams that would take a chance really make a difference.”

You mean like Drexel in 2007, Bobo? Five years ago, the Dragons went 13-4 in away or neutral site games and beat Villanova, Syracuse and Temple on the road in three consecutive games over a 13-day span. The Dragons ended the regular season with the highest RPI of any CAA team. Yet they were left out of the NCAA Tournament field after going 13-5 in conference play, finishing in fourth place and falling to VCU—SHOCKING—in the semifinals.

Drexel had eight losses prior to Selection Sunday in 2007. None came against sub-.500 teams. Five of the losses came to NCAA Tournament teams (Old Dominion and VCU twice and Pennsylvania) while a sixth was at the hands of NIT-bound Hofstra. In addition, the CAA that year had four teams ranked in the top 100 in the RPI and four of its 12 teams with an RPI of 200 or lower. This year’s 10-team MAAC had two teams ranked in the top 100 in the RPI and five with an RPI of 200 or lower. (The CAA. even in a bottom-heavy year this season, had just five)

The beauty in all this for teh selection committee is it can smugly declare it didn’t act in an inconsistent manner simply because the process by which the field is selected is ever-fluid. How can something be declared unfair and contradictory when no consistent criteria for evaluating at-large teams is ever established? Teh selection committee will take into account injuries and suspensions, as it did for George Mason six years ago, except when it won’t. What was important five or six years ago isn’t important now, and vice versa. So have fun scheduling a beast of a non-conference schedule next year, Bruiser. It won’t matter.

Nor, really, will this vindicating NIT run. Sure, Drexel and its fans—those with a degree from the school as well as those who took up the defense of the basketball team these past two-plus weeks—have even more tangible proof now that the Dragons belonged in the NCAA Tournament.

But all the “told you so’s” in the world won’t change the fact Drexel didn’t make it, and that the Dragons’ NCAA Tournament drought is now at 16 seasons and counting. Nothing sells a program like an NCAA Tournament appearance, and high schoolers who will be seniors this fall were barely out of the womb the last time Drexel went dancing and likely won’t care about the politics or the ineptitude or whatever it was that kept Drexel out twice in the last five years.

Think that doesn’t matter? Think about how Jaime Larranaga stormed into New York after 2006, and how many NCAA Tournaments Hofstra has made since then. And then join me in mourning what could have been, for two schools six years apart.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Trio of Dutchwomen seniors establish a successful foundation

Flying Dutchwomen seniors Candice Bellocchio, Marie Malone and Nicole Capurso pose with head coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey and senior student manager Elizabeth Smith after Senior Day festivities Feb. 26. Photo courtesy Hofstra Athletics.

As the first-year head coach of the Flying Dutchwomen and a high school senior, respectively, back in the fall of 2006, Krista Kilburn-Steveskey and Candice Bellocchio both knew where they wanted to lead the Hofstra women’s basketball program—even if they didn’t know their way around campus yet.

“She was trying to take me on a tour but she didn’t know where anything was,” Bellocchio said this week. “So the two of us are standing there with a map trying to figure things out.”

Such an image was symbolic of the rebuilding program Kilburn-Steveskey and Bellocchio were about to embark upon. Five-and-a-half years later, the ultimate goal—Hofstra’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament—is within reach as the fourth-seeded Dutchwomen prepare to begin CAA Tournament play this afternoon against fifth-seeded UNC Wilmington.

This weekend represents the last chance for Bellocchio and fellow seniors Nicole Capurso and Marie Malone to be a part of that history-making team, but even if the Dutchwomen fall short, the trio will take—pardon the pun—pride in laying the foundation for the most successful era in program history.

The Dutchwomen (19-10) have won at least 19 games for the third straight season, which equals the amount of times the program reached the 19-win mark in Hofstra’s first 27 seasons at the Division I level. And the Dutchwomen are primed for a long stay at or near the top of the CAA thanks to an incoming recruiting class that is ranked as one of the best among mid-majors.

It’s a long way from where the Dutchwomen were during Bellocchio’s freshman season in 2007-08, when Hofstra endured a 5-25 season. Even in the midst of that trying campaign, though, Bellocchio knew something good was brewing.

“The only thing she could have promised was we were going to build the program,” said Bellocchio, who redshirted her sophomore year due to injury. “And it wasn’t going to be easy, but it would be worth it.”

Capurso and Malone recognized the same thing from afar. Capurso, a year younger than her fellow seniors, committed to Hofstra at the end of her junior year of high school and was impressed by the Dutchwomen’s effort and focus in 2007-08, when they lost eight games by seven point or less.

“The year I’m coming to watch, they’re 5-25 and it wasn’t much different, mentality-wise,” Capurso said. “We always played hard, we were always a team that was fighting for their life. I think we still have that. Getting talented kids in every year helps, running an offense like this helps, but I think the foundation was always there. We were always tough and we weren’t going to back down.”

Malone was heavily recruited by Hofstra but initially went to West Virginia. When she decided to transfer after her freshman year, she wasted no time deciding to head to the school she wanted to attend in the first place.

“Honestly, Hofstra was my first choice from the beginning,” Malone said. “I knew that whether the team was struggling or not, [Kilburn-Steveskey] was still coaching them as hard as she could and that they weren’t giving up. Things weren’t falling into their hands that year but I knew that they were fighting every single game. Most teams will just lay down and be like whatever, we’re not going well. But not here.”

The Dutchwomen’s winning percentage and CAA Tournament seeding has improved in each of the last four seasons, thanks in large part to the performance of the seniors on and off the court. Bellocchio has played in a program-record 131 games, ranks second-all-time in assists and will reach the top 20 in points with her first basket today.

She also made the CAA’s all-academic team in her final four seasons and won the CAA’s Dean Ehlers Leadership Award at this week’s CAA banquet, where a video in which teammates, coaches and school administrators poignantly paid her homage was aired.

Capurso ranks in the school’s all-time top 10 in 3-pointers, points and games played and earned CAA all-academic honors in all four seasons, And while Malone has been hobbled by injuries—she suffered the second torn ACL of her career last year after averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds over four games but couldn’t redshirt because she’d already used up that fifth year in transferring—she is averaging 5.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, which are career highs over a full season.

“Definitely the people [she thinks of] when you think of Hofstra basketball,” Kilburn-Steveskey said. “For me, personally, the ones that have just set the tone have been these three.”

While the Dutchwomen are focused on this weekend, the specter of better days ahead have the three seniors feeling equal parts wistful they won’t be around to see the continued improvement and gratified by their part in getting the program to this point.

“I’d try to get a sixth year, but I don’t think they’ll allow it,” Bellocchio said with a laugh. “It’s great to know that you came through this program, made a difference and made it better for the people behind you now. Hopefully they can take that foundation and grow it even more.”

“I think it’s going to be, from my first year being here, a whole lot different than what [next year’s freshman are] going to experience when they’re here,” Malone said. “It’s going to be much better. We’re held so much higher in the conference now I think it’s going to be really, really good.”

“My freshman year was a different point [than] where this program is now and I like to think that our senior class really helped move [it to] that point,” Capurso said. “In a family, you always talk about giving a better life to the people behind you. And that’s what I feel like we did here. That’s cool to say. Hopefully we get to the tournament this time, but whatever happens from here, it’s like we did help change the program and hopefully the mentality and the face of the program. It can only go up from there.”

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Georgia State 85, Hofstra 50 (Or: It ends in dust and disarray)

The last loss of the season was so disheartening, I'm not even posting the usual Cinderella song.

This wasn’t the synergistic ending to a hard-luck season the Flying Dutchmen seemed destined to suffer, never mind the start of the shocking Cinderella run that everyone hoped to experience even while realizing it was the longest of long shots. The close-but-not-quite Dutchmen would play well for large periods of time against Georgia State in the first round of the CAA Tournament Friday night, get done in by an untimely mistake or two and head home for the summer pondering what might have been, both in the CAA Tournament and in a season in which the raw data didn’t match up to the final record.

Except a season that began with the Dutchmen losing their first six CAA games by a combined 35 points and was defined by resiliency even in defeat ended with an 85-50 loss to Georgia State that was not nearly as close as the score indicated. It was still the most lopsided CAA Tournament loss in history as well as Hofstra’s worst conference loss since moving to Division I.

“The one thing I said is we never gave up all year,” Mo Cassara said. “Certainly we had enough challenges where we could have given up and could have not won and really played poorly at times. But we never did that. I really believe this is the first night all year where the game really got away from us.”

The Dutchmen at their best last night wouldn’t have beaten a Georgia State team determined to take out its aggressions over being slighted in the conference awards balloting. Led by CAA Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Eric Buckner (21 points on 7-of-7 shooting from the field and 7-of-8 from the line, 11 rebounds and two blocks), the Panthers shot 59.6 percent, drained 20 of 24 free throws, outrebounded the Dutchmen 35-23, forced 15 turnovers and got 14 players into the boxscore. The Georgia State bench outscored Dutchmen reserves 28-1 (a first half Moussa Kone free throw).

“The coach and the team, we all have a little chip on our shoulder right now,” said Panthers coach Ron Hunter, who inexplicably finished second to Bruiser Flint in the Coach of the Year voting. “We’ve had it all year. And it’s magnified by 100 right now for a lot of different reasons.”

But Georgia State’s dominance shouldn’t obscure just how badly the Dutchmen played, especially after a reasonably promising start. There were six ties and three lead changes in the first eight minutes, but in their final 21 possessions of the first half—beginning right after they tied the game for the final time—the Dutchmen scored 11 points, committed nine turnovers (including four in a row at the start of the stretch) and were just 3-of-10 from the field.

Georgia State expanded the lead to 10 by the six minute mark, to 20 with 3:57 left and led 45-24 at the half—the worst halftime deficit for Hofstra since Nov. 18, 2010 against top-ranked North Carolina. From thereon, the only good thing about the game was how fast it moved towards completion. The final buzzer sounded about an hour and 50 minutes after tipoff, which must also be a CAA Tournament record.

The Dutchmen got three players into double figures—they were 9-8 in such games during the regular season—but Mike Moore (16 points), Stevie Mejia (14 points and two steals) and Nathaniel Lester (11 points) were just 13-of-34 from the field. Moore (2-of-7 from 3-point land) and Lester (3-of-10 from the field and 5-of-9 from the line) had particularly rough outings in their final collegiate games. Fellow outgoing senior Dwan McMillan had more turnovers (four) than assists (two) for just the fifth time this year and the first time since Jan. 18.

“I just think overall we didn’t have the performance we needed by anybody or collectively to compete tonight,” Cassara said.

The resounding nature of the defeat to the CAA’s sixth-place team served as a harrowing reminder of how far the Dutchmen have to go to get back to where they once were, and a wistful reminder of how thin a line it is between contention and irrelevance.

“I told the guys a year ago we were sitting in here, we had won 21 games and we were tied for second in the league,” Cassara said. “A year later we’re getting blown out and we’re second-to-last. So there’s a lesson to learn in that—a lot of lessons for our staff to learn, a lot of lessons for you young guys and certainly lessons for the seniors who now [have] got to move on and do something else with their lives.”

The Dutchmen could survive the spring 2010 ravaging of the program, and the subsequent hastened recruiting period, thanks to the transcendence of Charles Jenkins. But the bill came due in a hurry this season, when the Dutchmen didn’t have the replenishments for Jenkins and Greg Washington.

The next generation will begin arriving in the fall, when transfers Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel and Taran Buie lead an influx of new talent, but Friday night’s loss magnified the scope of this rebuilding job and the reality the Dutchmen are more than just a couple players away from regaining their usual spot in the top half of the CAA.

Programs win in the CAA, and nobody knows the enormity of the task ahead better than Cassara, who realizes Hofstra, in its current state, has no foundation. In his post-game comments, Cassara made three references to the amount of work the coaching staff has ahead of it.

Dutchmen fans can take some solace in knowing that brighter days began appearing almost immediately after the last time the program suffered through a season like this. Jay Wright’s second year at the helm in 1995-96—in which he went 9-20 largely with holdovers from the Butch van Breda Kolff era and some placeholders—ended with a Friday night loss in a conference tournament. Speedy Claxton arrived that fall.

Perhaps a decade or more down the road we will look back on Friday as a bottoming out and the start of a new era, and realize that Coombs-McDaniel, Buie or one of the freshman became for Cassara what Claxton was for Wright. But before Cassara could look ahead to better days, there was a loss over which to stew, one which will surely stoke the fire inside him in the coming days, weeks, months and years as he does whatever he can to make sure nights like Friday and seasons like 2011-12 never happen again.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, this is a little bit of unchartered territory for me,” Cassara said. “As a young coach, as a head coach, I’ve never been in a situation like this. I’ve never been on the other side of a loss like that ever. I mean, in all my years. It’s something I’ve got to learn to deal with. It’s something that we’ve got to learn, as a staff, to figure out how to get back to the top part of this league. And it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

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

FINAL SEASON STANDINGS
Mike Moore 66
Nathaniel Lester 46
Dwan McMillan 20
Stevie Mejia 18
David Imes 14
Stephen Nwaukoni 10
Shemiye McLendon 9
Moussa Kone 6
Bryant Crowder 2
Matt Grogan 1

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

Friday, March 2, 2012

All we are saying...is the Dutchmen have a chance

Just when I think this season can't get any more frustrating, Flying Dutchmen, you go and do something like this and TOTALLY REDEEM YOURSELVES!

At this point, what else is there to say? The media guides have been scoured and the numbers have been crunched. History has been reviewed and the reasons for hope identified, as has the winning equation for the Flying Dutchmen this weekend.

Of course, it involves more algebra than anything this side of my junior year of high school: If A plus B happens and is added to the outcome of C times D, and VCU gets lost on the way to the Richmond Coliseum and has to forfeit a game, then Hofstra can win it all!

For the Flying Dutchmen, this year’s CAA Tournament this year, much more so than any of the past three editions, is all about delusion barely disguised as hope. Despite my valiant efforts to paint an optimistic picture, the truth is history—both of the recent and longer-term variety—is decidedly not on the side of the Dutchmen.

Sure, there have been 17 teams to earn an NCAA Tournament bid with a losing record, but the 14 to do so since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985 all did so as automatic qualifiers from mid-major conferences that didn’t possess the cache the CAA owns now. Those conferences had the type of parity—which is and always will be a good synonym for mediocrity—that made it possible for a sub-.500 team to make up for a poor regular season by winning three or four games in as many days.

If there’s one thing the CAA lacks after sending two teams to the Final Four in a six-season span, it’s parity. Top three seeds Drexel, VCU and George Mason—the three teams the Dutchmen would have to beat in the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals—all won at least 14 league games.

And to run through Mason, VCU and Drexel would require the Dutchmen winning three games in three days against a trio of opponents whom they went 0-5 against this season. With James Madison and Towson the first two teams eliminated, the Dutchmen have beaten just one club still in the tournament (UNC Wilmington).

Only one team with a conference record as poor as the one the Dutchmen produced this season has ever made the NCAA Tournament (Fairfield in 1997). And as we discussed last night, CAA teams that lose close games as regularly as the Dutchmen did this season tend to go home quickly from the CAA Tournament.

Plus, since Hofstra emerged from the remains of the ECC following the 1993-94 season, the Dutchmen’s conference tournaments have almost always gone to chalk. In the last 17 seasons—the NAC/America East from 1995-2001 and the CAA since 2002—the top seed has won the title 15 times. The only exceptions were third-seeded George Mason winning in 2008 and second-seeded Old Dominion taking home the crown last year.

These trends are nothing new in either the CAA or the America East: Only six CAA champions have entered the tournament ranked lower than second. And the no. 1 or no. 2 seed has won the America East/NAC in each of the last 18 years and in 30 of 32 seasons overall.

So much has to go right to make history that it’s almost foolish to ponder the possibilities. And even if everything goes right—an unlikely scenario for a team whose luck has been among the worst in the nation this season—there are no guarantees the Dutchmen will make a Cinderella run. The Dutchmen could have three or more players score in double figures, crash the boards, play good defense, minimize their mistakes and remedy the issues and imperfections that turned what should have been a .500 conference season into a 3-15 nightmare, and the odds are at some point this weekend they will still run into a team that is just a little bit better in every facet of the game, not to mention one that runs deeper than seven scholarship players.

So as awesome as it is to envision an upset over Georgia State tonight and an even bigger upset over George Mason tomorrow night, and as cinematic as it would be to see the Dutchmen win an 8-on-5 game against VCU on Sunday and knock off Drexel in an ECC title game Monday, the odds are the Dutchmen will spend three nights in Richmond only because they play so late tonight, and that by first thing tomorrow morning Mo Cassara and staff are focusing fully on 2012-13.

It’s weekends like this that test your mettle as a sports fan. Do you turn the page on 2011-12 and hope next year is better? Or do you believe, even when every trend is suggesting otherwise? Are you as ardent during 10-21 as you were during 22-11?

Do you head to Richmond because you believe in the longshot, and because you still haven’t forgiven yourself for missing the 1994 Dutchmen’s run to the ECC title (no I didn’t make that up!) and you don’t want to miss a chance at seeing history again, even if it is a 16-in-10,000 chance? And if you can’t go, do you sit home and obsess and stew all day (and maybe all weekend) over the unlikely possibility that magic happens in Richmond while you’re on Long Island.

These are the weekends that turned us into sports fans in the first place. We watch sports for the unexpected and the unimaginable, to experience those moments that will always have us saying “I was there.”

And as infrequently as those shocking moments happen, and as mostly irrelevant as they are to this year’s Dutchmen, there ARE teams that have basically done what the Dutchmen want to do. There ARE teams that have earned the right to yell some “We shocked the world!” and not have it come off as banal and clich├ęd. It probably won’t happen to the Dutchmen. But right now, as of this moment, it could.

“D-Mac [Dwan McMillan] told me earlier in the year he dreamed that we would win the CAA Tournament,” Mike Moore said after the Dutchmen beat UNC Wilmington in the regular season finale Saturday. “So I always had hope that we could make a miracle run in the tournament. This is a great start. Got me believing a little bit.”

“You never know,” Cassara said before departing for Richmond Wednesday. “That’s the great thing about college basketball, it’s the great thing about our league, it’s the great thing about sports. There’s always another opportunity and there’s nothing like a Cinderella story.”

So what else is there to say? How about “So you’re telling me there’s a chance…”

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

Just The Facts 2012: Hofstra as the last or next-to-last seed

Hmm. Thinking Tony Skinn enjoyed this scene.

One more Just The Facts for you as we get ready to watch the Flying Dutchmen take on Georgia State in the first round of the CAA Tournament here in suddenly soggy Richmond. The Dutchmen are the last or next-to-last seed in their conference tournament for the eighth time. Good news: They have won at least one game as the last or next-to-last seed five times, led by the 1994 team that won the final East Coast Conference title. Here’s the raw data!

CAA 2003: As the ninth seed in a 10-team league, the Dutchmen beat William & Mary in the first round before falling to top-seeded UNC Wilmington in the quarterfinals.

CAA 2002: As the 10th seed, the Dutchmen beat Towson in the first round and upset second-seeded George Mason in the quarterfinals (ha ha Jaime) before losing to third-seeded VCU in the semifinals.

NAC 1995: As the ninth seed, the Dutchmen beat Maine in an outbracket/first round game before losing to top-seeded Drexel in the quarterfinals.

ECC 1994: As the fifth seed in a six-team league, the Dutchmen beat fourth-seeded Chicago State in the opening round, upset top-seeded Troy State in the semifinals and edged second-seeded Northeastern Illinois in double overtime in the title game.

ECC 1988: As the eighth seed in an eight-team league, the Dutchmen lost to Lafayette in the quarterfinals.

ECC 1987: As the seventh seed, the Dutchmen lost to Lafayette in the quarterfinals.

ECC 1985: As the seventh seed, the Dutchmen upset second-seeded Lafayette in the quarterfinals before falling to sixth-seeded Lehigh in the semifinals.

IN ADDITION: Since joining the NAC/America East in 1994-95, the Dutchmen are 6-2 when playing in an outbracket/opening round game. They won in 1995, 1998 (over Hartford) 2001, 2002, 2009 (over UNC Wilmington) and 2010 (over Georgia State) and lost in 1996 (to Northeastern) and 1998 (to Towson).

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

CAA Tournament Q&A: Mo Cassara

With the clock ticking before Gary Moore and I make a middle-of-the-night run for the Southern Bias border, I’m all about the minimalism tonight. Plus you’re here to read what Mo Cassara has to say as he and the Flying Dutchmen get ready for the CAA Tournament. So read on! I have to pack.


How do you approach the tournament when you’re seeded at the back of the pack like this?

I think this is a unique situation where I don’t think anybody on our coaching staff, on our roster, thinks that we’re an 11 seed, you know? I think we’ve been in so many close games and we’ve competed with everybody throughout the league, game in and game out, [to] where we don’t feel like we’re that far separated. I think on different teams—everybody’s been on teams where there’s such a huge separation. There’s not a team in the league that I’m really fearful of playing.

Georgia State and VCU are probably the two teams that come to mind that we have the most difficulty with, just because of style of play. But other than that I think, regardless of seed, especially right now in a one-game neutral court site, we’re excited to go down and have another crack at Georgia State.

What can you do differently this time against Georgia State?

It’s interesting. We went back and Coach Morgan and Coach Sellers have done a great job really preparing us and really going back through some of the games that Georgia State lost as well as our game. And in all reality, we held them to 59 points. It really wasn’t our defense. It was really our offense. We struggled. And again, a lot of that credit goes to Georgia State, the way they play. They play a matchup zone, they play a 1-3-1, they’ve got great shot blockers, they’ve got size, they’ve got athleticism. So we’ve put a few different wrinkles in and I think we’ve got some much better offensive flow and certainly, as you’ve watched us the last couple weeks here, with that smaller lineup we are a better offensive team.

How do you go about conveying to the team how it can salvage a tough season this weekend?

As I’ve told our guys, this is a brand-new season. It’s a one-game season. And you have a great opportunity on Friday night. We know what [Georgia State is] about and we have a one-game season. It’s not necessarily about salvaging anything, it’s about taking advantage of a great opportunity And I think, in the tournament, anything can happen. You’ve just got to win that first game and that’s ultimately our focus right now—win that first game. And that starts with our preparation. We’ve had a couple great days of rest and mental preparation and we had a couple great days of practice.

So I’m excited about heading down there and giving it our best. We’ve played pretty good basketball the last couple weeks, and other than a couple minute stretch in the first half and one defensive breakdown in the second half, we played well against William & Mary against a team that is a difficult team to play in their gym.

In a situation like this, how do you go about preparing for possible games Saturday and later in the weekend? Do you just worry about winning the first one and then figure you’ll tackle Saturday if you get there?

Absolutely. This is much more about winning that first half against Georgia State and then obviously winning that second half. Absolutely no worries about who we’re preparing for the next game.

You’ve got to win four games in four days with a depleted roster. Is there any way to minimize the wear and tear if you get deeper into the weekend, or do you just have to hope adrenaline takes over?

I think we’re in a tough situation. We’ve got seven scholarship guys right now, we’ve got two walk-ons, but you know what, those guys are ready to play. They’re young and they’re excited and they’re ready to play. And we’ll take full advantage of that.

If you had to identify a key to making a run this weekend, what would it be?

I think it’s probably Mejia and McLendon. I think those two guys, if they make some shots as a starter and off the bench, we become a much tougher team to beat.

Are you going to dig into your bag of motivational tricks this week and discuss the out-of-nowhere teams that have reached the NCAA Tournament with a losing record?

I thought about that. I may do that, just to say ‘look at all these teams and what they’ve done.’ Certainly we have a great opportunity to do that and you have to go out and seize the opportunity.

I spend every morning on the road with [Hofstra bus driver] Eddie [Dellostritto]. We have coffee for hours sometimes, because I can’t sleep, as you know. He talks a lot about the first year we were in the league. The trips changed from New Hampshire and Vermont to Virginia and Old Dominion and then we struggled. But then we won two games in the tournament, the first two games. We’ve been talking about that all year, Eddie and I. So it’s been in the back of my head.

You never know. That’s the great thing about college basketball, it’s the great thing about our league, it’s the great thing about sports. There’s always another opportunity and there’s nothing like a Cinderella story.

But right now we’re not looking big picture. This is much more of a first half, second half, win, move on if we’re lucky to do that. We’re facing a very, very good Georgia State team.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

Just The Facts: Hard-luck teams and the tournament

This may or may not be Gary Moore and I after we pick up a hitchhiker from Mason tonight. MOCK! YEAH! ING! YEAH! BIRD!

In the third installment of Just The Facts we look at the history of teams that have suffered the type of hard-luck regular season the Flying Dutchmen just endured. The Dutchmen were 2-8 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, which made them just the eighth team in CAA history to go 2-8 or worse in such games (minimum 10 games). They are just the second team to endure such a season, following in the footsteps of last year’s Towson squad, since the CAA began expanding in 2000-01.

As for how those teams fared in the tournament—bad news, kiddies: Thus far, teams that specialize in close but not quite have combined to win a grand total of one CAA Tournament game. And that was an outbracket, 8 vs. 9 game win by American in 1999.

In addition, the losses haven’t been close: The average margin of defeat in a season-ending defeat for the Dutchmen’s predecessors was 15.3 points. Is that ironic? Only Towson managed to lose by six or less.

All of which means the Dutchmen will make HUGE HISTORY this weekend! Right? Anyway, here’s a look at the previous seven teams to go 2-8 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime:

1985-86 JAMES MADISON: 2-9 in games decided by six points or less, 5-22/3-11 CAA overall, lost in quarterfinals as seventh seed

1986-87 WILLIAM & MARY: 1-10 in games decided by six points or less, 5-21/2-12 CAA overall, lost in quarterfinals as eighth seed

1987-88 EAST CAROLINA: 2-10 in games decided by six points or less, 8-19/3-11 CAA overall, lost in quarterfinals as eighth seed

1989-90 NAVY: 1-9 in games decided by six points or less, 5-22/4-10 CAA overall, lost in quarterfinals as sixth seed

1989-90 UNC WILMINGTON: 2-8 in games decided by six points or less, 8-19/3-11 CAA overall, lost in quarterfinals as seventh seed

1998-99 AMERICAN: 2-8 in games decided by six points or less, 6-20/2-14 CAA overall, beat William & Mary in outbracket game before losing in quarterfinals as ninth seed

2010-11 TOWSON: 2-12 in games decided by six points or less, 4-25/0-18 CAA overall, lost in first round as 12th seed

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.