Monday, January 27, 2014

There’s always something magic, there’s always something new

To become a mid-major basketball fan means being born with a healthy sense of self-awareness. We are ever cognizant that, generally speaking, those poor folks who root for BCS programs view us with bemusement, if they acknowledge our existence at all.

We also know that much of our fandom is repetitive. Every year, with almost no exception, the entire season comes down to the weekend of the conference tournament. Because we realize that the odds of winning the ultimate prize are slim even in the best of years, we believe in savoring regular season moments others might not even acknowledge.

And in doing so, we are sensitive to the idea that we’re going to the well too many times. How often can we declare that a January game was a multi-act melodrama with a Wagnerian soundtrack? At what point do we become a self-parody in gushing over a small stretch of games that are unlikely to add up to something tangible in March?

But here’s the beautiful, Yogi-esque secret of mid-major basketball: Even when everything’s the same, it’s still different and new.

Sure, we’ve seen the Dutchmen stumble into CAA play in January looking like a team that might never actually win a game, only to immediately turn their season around over a three- or four-game span that includes a resounding win at home over one of the CAA’s best teams.

We’ve seen a star senior lay claim to his CAA Player of the Year candidacy by fueling a stirring comeback from a double-digit deficit at home. We’ve seen little moments that don’t necessarily show up in the boxscore of exciting victories, but may lay the foundation for future prosperity.

We just haven’t seen ANY of this in three seasons. That’s a lifetime in college basketball. And given all the crap the Flying Dutchmen program has endured in the previous two seasons, what happened in January and February of 2011—way back when Charles Jenkins channeled The Wolf in leading the Dutchmen to a 14-4 conference record that included seismic comeback wins over James Madison and William & Mary as well as a cathartic trouncing of George Mason—feels like it was experienced by another fanbase, one that never had to question whether or not it was actually worthwhile to root for a college basketball program.

So yeah. While there was nothing new in the historical sense about the three-game winning streak from Jan. 11 through Jan. 22 that momentarily vaulted the Dutchmen into second place in the CAA, it all FELT decidedly new and magical to us.

The 75-71 win over College of Charleston on Jan. 11—when the Dutchmen overcame a 14-point deficit to record their biggest comeback win since the 92-90 win over James Madison on Jan. 24, 2011—was sparked by senior star Zeke Upshaw, whose back story is far different yet perhaps even more compelling than Jenkins’ was.

While Jenkins was perhaps the most established superstar in the country, Upshaw has come out of nowhere—or at least the end of the bench at Illinois State—to become the go-to guy the Dutchmen have lacked since Jenkins graduated.

Upshaw drained 3-pointers on consecutive trips late in the first half to begin the comeback. Those six points were more than he scored in 55 of his 62 games at Illinois State, and were perhaps the baskets that infused him with the self-confidence to carry himself like the best player on the team.

“I think Zeke just finally said ‘Let me start making some plays for my team—I’m not going to wait around for something, I’m going to be aggressive and make plays,” Joe Mihalich said afterward. “That’s what the great players do. He basically said ‘Give me the ball. Give me the ball.’ Went down there, made a couple tough shots.”

Upshaw finished with 22 points against Charleston. Four nights later, he tied a school record with seven 3-pointers in a 69-64 win over UNC Wilmington. He had just 17 3-pointers in three seasons at Illinois State.

“I met with Zeke after the FDU game [an 86-67 loss on Jan. 2],” Mihalich said. “He said ‘Coach I’m just not used to this.’ It was an incredibly profound statement, because nothing could be more true. He’s not used to being the best player on the team, the leading scorer on the team and having somebody climbing him all the time because they [expect] so much.”

While the newcomer Upshaw scored 16 of his points after the Dutchmen fell behind by 14, Stephen Nwaukoni—the only holdover left from the 2010-11 season, when he capped the James Madison win with the decisive free throws with 3.9 seconds left in overtime—hit six free throws in the final 77 seconds, including the free throw that gave the Dutchmen the lead for good and a free throw that iced the game with less than two seconds left.

“Freshman year was a long time ago,” a grinning Nwaukoni said as he dragged out “long.”

The Dutchmen generated some resiliency prior to Nwaukoni’s go-ahead free throw, and some will immediately after it. In the 11 minutes and 54 seconds before Nwaukoni’s free throw, the Dutchmen had 14 possessions in which they could have tied the score or gone ahead. They scored just 14 points and were 6-of-13 from the line on those possessions, none of which ended with the Dutchmen taking the lead.

After draining the first free throw, Nwaukoni missed the second, but Moussa Kone grabbed the rebound, was fouled and hit the first free throw before missing the second. Nwaukoni promptly grabbed the rebound and hit both free throws to give the Dutchmen a 69-65 lead in a three-possession sequence that took just one second off the clock.

Just as Upshaw put to use his new-found aggressiveness against UNC Wilmington, the Dutchmen yielded immediate benefits from their collective grittiness when they blew all of a 10-point second half lead at Trask Coliseum. But the Seahawks failed to take the lead, even though they had seven possessions in which they had an opportunity to do so.

The resiliency manifested itself again last Wednesday, when the Dutchmen not only bounced back from a resounding loss to SMU but buried William & Mary in the second half of a 77-60 win. The Dutchmen lost Jordan Allen to a broken nose and a concussion on the final play of the first half, fell behind 35-34 in the first half-minute of the second half but went on a 17-0 run and eventually led the Tribe by as many as 23.

It wasn’t as cathartic a victory as the 87-74 trouncing of George Mason on Jan. 5, 2011, but routing William & Mary—which was one of just two CAA teams with multiple double-digit league wins—offered the same type we-need-to-pinch-ourselves hope that the win over George Mason offered.

Look, opening 3-1 in what is left of the CAA in 2013-14 is a whole lot different than opening up 8-1 in 2010-11. But the path between then and now reinforces why we should enjoy it just as much.

We know not to assume that the little moments from this start will ever add up to anything. Three years ago, when Shemiye McLendon provided instant offense off the bench and literally did not miss a clutch free throw as a freshman—he was 15-of-15 from the line in the final five minutes of games in which the two teams were separated by 10 points or less—I thought we were watching Hofstra’s next homegrown 1,000-point scorer. He scored 370 points before transferring to South Florida.

And when Mo Cassara raced up and down the home sideline during the win over George Mason—pissing off a dour Jaime Larranaga, who pleaded the entire second half for Cassara to be issued a technical for leaving the coach’s box—we thought we were watching a coach whose will to win was trickling down to his players. Alas, most of the players Cassara recruited cared much less about him and basketball than the players he inherited.

Maybe the resiliency and will displayed in the three-game winning streak will be as hard to maintain as it was to develop. And maybe the impact from Mihalich’s halftime tirade on Jan. 11—when he first screamed at officials and then CAA deputy commissioner of basketball Ron Bertovich after no whistle was blown when Upshaw was mugged going to the basket in the final seconds—will be limited only to the immediate aftermath. (Charleston out-fouled Hofstra, 18-6, in the final 20 minutes)

Maybe Saturday afternoon—when the Dutchmen scored the first seven points of the game before falling to Northeastern, 70-57—will prove to be the end of this 2014 resurgence. With a brutal week ahead—at Towson tonight, home for Drexel Wednesday, at Charleston Saturday—the Dutchmen could fall to 3-4 just as quickly as they improved to 3-1.

Of course, we’ll hope it was just a hiccup, as it was in January 2011, when the previously unbeaten Dutchmen recovered from a 75-64 loss to Old Dominion—a game in which Hofstra scored the first 11 points—by winning their next three games.

But if Saturday was the start of reality setting in for an undermanned team, so what? Players and fans alike will still have those little moments that seemed so big as they happened.

Upshaw will have the satisfaction of having maximized his unexpected fifth year of college basketball. Nwaukoni, who knows more than anyone where Hofstra basketball once was and how far it has fallen, gets to smile like he did as a freshman, and perhaps embark upon a senior season sprint similar to the one authored by Roberto Gittens in 2000-01. Nwaukoni had a career-high 15 rebounds against Charleston and is averaging 12.8 rebounds a game in six league contests this month.

As for us? After watching every high-profile transfer on the Hofstra bench flame out in spectacular fashion last year, we get the satisfaction of knowing that everyone else in the country will be searching for the next Zeke Upshaw while we get to enjoy watching the FIRST Zeke Upshaw. We get to see a good kid like Nwaukoni remind us that the bad kids were the aberration, and not the norm.

Whether it ended Saturday, or lasts for another seven weeks, we get to remember what it felt like to find magic in the commonplace, to savor good wins like we would good wine, to daydream of unlikely CAA Tournament runs and to walk into the Arena with a sense of excitement instead of trudging in out of a sense of obligation.

It’s nothing new. It’s all new.

“Can’t wait for the next game now,” Mihalich said Jan. 11.

Finally, neither can we.

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