Saturday, February 22, 2014

The past is gone but something might be found to take its place

Watching his alma mater’s men’s basketball team lose 66 of 91 games sends a man to a deep, dark place, where the task of generating reasons for optimism often involves finding a shovel and digging an even deeper hole, on the belief that he once struck gold so it has to be there again, right?

Equal parts delirium and desperation lead said man to believe he’s struck gold when all he’s really done is hit some more rock. But that rock sure looked like gold to me Wednesday afternoon, when my digging revealed some pretty good harbingers for the Dutchmen as they prepared to face CAA leader Delaware.

(Yes, the Maine Tweet and the Speedy/Stokes Tweet each appeared before I corrected my Tweet about Hofstra’s record against 1- or 2-loss conference foes after Valentine’s Day. My sporadically updated blog, my rules)

Since this is a sporadically updated blog, there’s no use trying to create suspense: History proved to be a big fat liar as the Dutchmen lost for the 67th time in their last 92 games in falling to Delaware, 81-77, at Hofstra Arena.

Still, despite the above-mentioned fatalism, and the tortured path we took getting there—the Dutchmen led by 15 in the first half and were 0-for-7 when shooting with a chance to take the lead in the final 3:30—it was, like much of this 8-20 season, oddly fun.

“Thought it was a heckuva college basketball game, I really did,” Joe Mihalich said. “As heartbroken as we are, it was a lot of fun out there.”

As I thought in November, this season has turned out to be a volume worth placing on the bookshelf (GOOGLE IT CRAIN) next to the 1993-94 edition. That was another rather bizarre, expectation-free, bridge-the-gap season in which a bunch of players who were new to us took advantage of what would likely be their only chance to occupy center stage by playing compelling basketball, despite a sub-.500 record.

More than 71 percent of the Dutchmen’s minutes and more than 76 percent of their scoring has come from players who are either new to the program (grad transfers Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith and freshmen Jamall Robinson and Chris Jenkins) or graduating at the end of the year (Stephen Nwaukoni).

So next year’s roster—which should feature Niagara transfers Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley and SMU transfer Brian Bernardi as well as freshman guard Eliel Gonzalez, who spent this season in the NCAA gulag—will bear absolutely no resemblance to this year’s.

And if everything goes according to plan for the Dutchmen—and hey, we know how often THAT happens—then by 2015-16, nobody will actually believe the 2013-14 season ever happened, except for those of us loyal enough to witness it.

Just as we do with the 1993-94 team—HEY LITOS THE ECC REALLY DID EXIST I HAVE A NOTEBOOK PROTECTOR THAT PROVES IT—we’ll probably have a hard time convincing people that this year happened, and an even tougher task in explaining why we enjoyed watching it.

The defeat Wednesday marked the fourth time the Dutchmen have lost a conference game in which they’ve led by at least seven points—and the second time they’ve blown a double-digit first half lead and lost to likely no. 1 seed Delaware. In addition, the Dutchmen came back from a 17-point second half deficit to briefly take the lead against James Madison on Feb. 10.

“I truly believe we can beat anybody in this league,” Mihalich said. “I just told the guys that in the locker room. I tell them all the time. And we can. We proved it tonight. There’s just no doubt we can beat anybody in the league.”

As frustrating as it is to watch the Dutchmen come so close and fall short so often, it has been a pleasure to watch a team try—to the point of exhaustion—to overcome its shortcomings with effort and moxie alone.

Last year’s post-disaster squad was endearing in much the same way, but that season began with higher expectations and a much better team, so there was a regrettable “what if” thread weaving its way through the season that isn’t present this time around.

“You always want more out of them,” Mihalich said. “They have great heart. We’re playing short-handed—we play eight guys, and really, it’s six guys getting all the minutes—and so the second half rolls around, maybe we get a little weary out there. We’re a little undermanned.

“And at the same time, we’re in every game.”

As on Wednesday, history appears to be on the side of the Dutchmen as the CAA Tournament approaches and they try to put a memorable bow on a season that would otherwise be forgotten—or not even acknowledged at all—by outsiders.

It was 20 years ago next month, of course, when Hofstra sent Butch van Breda Kolff into retirement a champion by winning three games in three days to win the final ECC tournament.

(Congratulations to me, that’s my 10,000th reference to the 1993-94 ECC tournament on this blog!)

“We ain’t going anywhere—we ain’t going anywhere,” Mihalich said. “I just told the team—you can ask them—I can’t wait to play [Saturday].”

“We’ve got to stop defeating ourselves a little bit,” Upshaw said. “And I think we’ll get over that hump of being close.”

Of course, examining history for favorable trends usually happens when you want to ignore the evidence gathered in the present. And the odds of an undermanned team authoring a historic CAA tournament run by winning three games in three days—or, more likely having to win four games in four days—aren’t good. So let’s just enjoy whatever happens over these final couple weeks without trying to bestow an unreasonable Hollywood ending upon it.

Then again, when (err, if) Hofstra beats preseason favorite Towson today, the Dutchmen will be 9-20—the same record they posted in 1993-94. Sometimes, history is just too potent to ignore.