Saturday, March 8, 2014

The CAA Tournament (Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love symbolic gambling on Hofstra)

At least I haven't forgotten to make Molly's Florida costume yet.

When it comes to gambling, my Dad is better than anyone I’ve ever met—not at slots or roulette or poker or blackjack but at getting up and leaving the table at the peak of his winnings.

The rest of us who are fortunate enough to collect a tall stack of chips will not even consider leaving. Instead, our minds are racing with the thoughts of continuing to ride the hot streak and what we’ll do with all that money once we return home.

Of course, casinos are built on red-hot streaks that turn ice-cold, and most of us are familiar with the feeling of impending dread that comes with playing well beyond our peak and digging into the wallet to try and regain the magic as well as our profits.

But not Dad. He hasn’t been to a casino since well before my Mom died, but when he did gamble, the former stockbroker and perpetually cautious investor always knew exactly how much he had spent and how much he had profited, and once he’d decided he’d made a nice return on his initial ante, he’d cash out, go home and put his winnings into a section of his bedroom drawer reserved solely for gambling money.

I thought of my Dad and his gambling skills last night, when the eighth-seeded Flying Dutchmen advanced in the CAA Tournament by scoring the final nine points of the game to beat ninth-seeded UNCW Wilmington, 78-70, in front of what sure appeared to be a sparse crowd at Baltimore Arena.

If sports fandom is gambling—and really, aren’t we all sitting here hoping to someday hold the royal flush in our hands?—then we should by all means follow my Dad’s lead and step away from the table right now, before the Dutchmen take on top-seeded Delaware this afternoon.

The Dutchmen’s first CAA Tournament win in 1,097 days (but who’s counting?) provided profits, both obvious and symbolic, that should be stashed in a drawer and saved for next year. In providing us the anticipation of knowing another game awaited on the other side of slumber, the Dutchmen also reached double figures in wins for the first time in three seasons. There will be no banners or certificates printed up to commemorate a 10-win season, but a “10” under the win column looks and feels a whole lot better than a “9.”

In addition, the tournament win provides the tangible happy ending for the players whose career ends with the Dutchmen’s next loss as well as the beginning of a base for those who will return with hopefully higher expectations next season.

For the 22nd time in 32 games, graduate senior Zeke Upshaw (23 points) led the Dutchmen in scoring. Senior Stephen Nwaukoni, the only member of the Dutchmen who was on the court the last time Hofstra won a CAA Tournament game, produced the 10th double-double of his career with 10 points—including a slam dunk for the game’s final points with 13 seconds left—and 14 rebounds.

As for the underclassmen, junior Moussa Kone had 11 points and nine rebounds, graduate senior Dion Nesmith had 15 points and three assists (speaking of quitting while we’re ahead—Nesmith got a favorable ruling from the NCAA and will play a second graduate season next year, what were the odds of the NCAA ever tossing Hofstra a bone?) and freshman Jamall Robinson began the game-winning rally and gave the Dutchmen the lead for good by wading into a sea of aqua and putting back his own miss to begin a nostalgic 3-point play with 1:58 left.

By any reasonable standard, the Dutchmen have exceeded expectations and profited on this trip to the conference tournament. That’s far more than we got the previous two seasons, both of which began with similarly long odds—Ken Pomeroy gave Hofstra a 0.6 percent chance of winning this year’s tournament, the same percentage he offered last year, while in 2012 our friend John Templon had Hofstra winning the automatic bid a whopping 16 times in 10,001 simulations—yet ended with disappointment in the form of yet another narrow loss to Delaware last year and the most lopsided defeat in CAA Tournament history to Georgia State in 2012.

So we should push ourselves away from the table, cash out and invest nothing in today, right? It’s too much to ask us to not watch the game, but regardless of result—and let’s face it, CAA top seeds are 26-1 all-time against the no. 8 or no. 9 seed, so the result will probably be a loss—we should be content with our winnings from last night.

Except…except sports fandom is far more seductive than any winning streak at the poker table. We certainly know the likelihood of Delaware winning today, but I’m sure I speak for the other 17 Hofstra fans when I say we spent all of last night and this morning finding optimism in the two close losses to the Blue Hens during the regular season, concocting upset scenarios in our heads and envisioning the Dutchmen doubling their stack of chips and playing Sunday for a berth in the CAA title game Monday.

Such daydreaming only increases the possibility of heartbreak, of course, and all but ensures that if the Dutchmen lose today, our first thoughts will be of regret and what could have been instead of appreciating what we had.

But still. How can we not hope to parlay last night’s winnings into even more? It’s that time of year when you the outcome—exiting the table empty-handed—is all but inevitable. But we’ll keep on daydreaming and doubling down and playing for that royal flush, right until the last of our chips ends up atop someone else’s stack.

“There’s going to be some conference [winner] we’re going to be reading about in a week or two weeks,” Mihalich said earlier this week. “Somebody’s going to do it. And if you’re Hofstra, you hope it’s you.”

For one more game, at least, we’ve still got that. What more could we ask for?

(A win today.)

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Just The Facts: The no. 8/no. 9 seed vs. the no. 1 seed in the conference quarterfinals

I'm back today, ahead of this franchise's reboot (GOOGLE IT LITOS).

Hey! Two Just The Facts this season! Everything’s coming up Milhouse!

With their 78-70 win over UNC Wilmington last night, the eighth-seeded Flying Dutchmen advanced to a CAA Tournament quarterfinal match this afternoon against top-seeded Delaware—and sent me scurrying to the record books to find out how the top seed fared in quarterfinal conference tournament games against the eighth or ninth seed,

Perhaps I should have resisted the urge.

Today marks the 28th time the CAA’s no. 8 or no. 9 seed will face the no. 1 seed in the quarterfinals (there were less than eight seeds in 1983, 1984, 2001 and 2013). The no. 8 or no. 9 seed is a gulp-inducing 1-26 against the no. 1 seed with an average margin of defeat of 15.5 points per game.

The only no. 8 or no. 9 seed to pull the upset was Navy, which, as the eighth seed in 1991, stunned James Madison 85-82 in overtime. Not saying that was a long time ago, but I was a senior in high school in 1991 and Navy is now in the Patriot League.

Only three other no. 8 or no. 9 seeds have lost by less than 10 points (no. 9 Georgia State to VCU in 2009, no. 9 Towson to VCU in 2004 and no. 9 VCU to UNC Wilmington in 1998). The closest loss in that bunch: VCU’s 69-63 loss.

The news gets no better when examining the fate of the no. 8 or no. 9 seed against the top seed way back when the Dutchmen were in the America East/NAC or the ECC. In fact, the no. 8 or no. 9 seed is 0-25 with an average margin of defeat of 16.8 ppg when it faces the top seed in a conference tournament in which Hofstra participated. Only three of those losses were by less than 10 points (Towson lost to top-seeded Bucknell, 79-77, in overtime in the 1985 ECC Tournament).

As for Hofstra, this will be the fourth time an eighth- or ninth-seeded Dutchmen squad faces the top seed in the quarterfinals. The total margin of defeat in the first three games: Eighty-three points including two losses by at least 30 points, including the 108-75 loss to Malik Rose and Drexel that I saw at the DAC in March 1995. Gulp.

I should shut up before I end up removing all the enjoyment from today’s festivities. Without further ado: The raw data of the no. 1 seed vs. the no. 8 or no. 9 seed in the CAA, followed by the results of 1-8/9 games when Hofstra was in the America East/NAC and ECC. (Note: The ECC records only go back to 1983-84, the first season of the single division format. The previous two-division format made figuring out postseason seedings nearly impossible)

2013: n/a
2012: Drexel 59, no. 9 UNCW 47
2011: GMU 68, no. 9 GSU 45
2010: ODU 86, no. 8 Towson 56
2009: VCU 61, no. 8 GSU 52
2008: VCU 57, no. 9 Towson 46
2007: VCU 73, no. 9 GSU 60
2006: UNCW 69, no. 9 UDee 56
2005: ODU 64, no. 9 W&M 51
2004: VCU 67, no. 9 Towson 60
2003: UNCW 76, no. 9 Hofstra 56
2002: UNCW 78, no. 8 JMU 62
2001: n/a
2000: GMU 75, no. 8 American 58
1999: GMU 73, no. 9 American 48
1998: UNCW 69, no. 9 VCU 63
1997: ODU 69, no. 8 Richmond 56
1996: VCU 89, no. 9 Richmond 55
1995: ODU 110, no. 8 GMU 94
1994: ODU 83, no. 8 W&M 58
1993: JMU 60, no. 8 GMU 49
1992: Richmond 74, no. 8 GMU 59
1991: No. 8 Navy 85, JMU 82
1990: JMU 93, no. 8 W&M 83
1989: Richmond 96, no. 8 Navy 86
1988: Richmond 67, no. 8 ECU 41
1987: Navy 63, no. 8 W&M 52
1986: Navy 81, no. 8 JMU 67
1985: Navy 94, no. 8 ECU 73
1984: n/a
1983: n/a

2001: Hofstra 68, no. 8 Vermont 55
2000: Hofstra 80, no. 8 Boston U. 62
1999: Delaware 83, no. 9 Towson 63
1998: Delaware 80, no. 8 Towson 60
1997: Boston U. 67, no. 9 Maine 49
1996: Drexel 83, no. 9 Hartford 71
1995: Drexel 108, no. 9 Hofstra 75

1994: n/a
1992: n/a
1991: n/a
1990: Towson 74, no. 8 Rider 63
1989: Bucknell 106, no. 8 Rider 80
1988: Lafayette 84, no. 8 Hofstra 54
1987: Bucknell 81, no. 8 Delaware 71
1986: Drexel 99, no. 8 Delaware 81
1985: Bucknell 79, no. 8 Towson 77 (OT)
1984: Bucknell 64, no. 8 Towson 42

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Friday, March 7, 2014

Will the CAA’s parity party spill over into Baltimore?

Hey Roger Goodell, if you want to see parity, come to Baltimore this weekend.

Conference tournament time is upon us, and with it comes the dozens of low-seeded schools—especially in traditionally one-bid leagues—that are infused by the belief that they can become the Cinderella that slays the giants and earns the golden ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

The truth is that the prospective Cinderellas are usually home long before midnight—especially in the CAA, where they usually get back on to the carriage moments after they exit.

The CAA’s 32nd postseason tournament begins tonight, when the eighth-seeded Flying Dutchmen will wear the home uniforms against ninth-seeded UNC Wilmington against some hardy and/or lost souls at the Baltimore Arena. And history suggests the Dutchmen and the Seahawks—as well as everyone except top-seeded Delaware and second-seeded Towson—are facing almost impossible odds in their quest to cut down the nets Monday night.

A team seeded lower than second has won the CAA tournament just six times. And only one of those champions was seeded lower than fourth: In 1993, seventh-seeded East Carolina became the CAA’s one and so far only Cinderella champ by knocking off the no. 2, no. 6 and no. 1 seeds in a three-day span.

Not only have the underdogs rarely won the tournament, they’ve rarely even survived into the semifinal round. Only three teams seeded sixth or lower—East Carolina as well as sixth seeds James Madison in 1997 and George Mason in 2007—have advanced to the finals.

In addition, just 17 percent of the CAA Tournament’s semifinal combatants (21 of 124) have gotten there as the fifth seed or lower. Thirteen of those reached the semis as the fifth seed, which means it had to win a virtual toss-up with the fourth seed in the quarterfinals.

The road has been incrementally less difficult for teams seeded in the lower two-thirds since the CAA expanded to 12 teams in 2001-02. Since then, 21 percent (10 of 48) of the semifinal teams have been seeded fifth or lower. But six of those teams were the fifth seed.

Recent history has been even more unforgiving: The top seeds have reached the CAA Tournament semifinals in each of the last three years.

So to listen to the CAA coaches speak of the wide-open nature of the tournament during the final conference call of the season Tuesday was to hear delusion at its finest…right?

“We’re a lower-seeded team,” Flying Dutchmen coach Joe Mihalich said. “Somebody [from] some conference—seventh seed, eighth seed, ninth seed—is going to all of a sudden turn around and be the champs.”

“Everybody’s going down there believing they have a chance to earn the NCAA bid,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said.

Except this time, everybody has legitimate reason to hope.

By various measures—equal parts eye test and statistical—the just-concluded CAA season may have been the most competitive in its history and certainly in the so-called modern era (i.e. since the America East four joined in 2001-02).

Of the 72 CAA regular season games, just more than half—37—were decided by seven points or less or in overtime.

“All you’ve got to do is look at the scores in the league to see it’s pretty wide-open,” Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said.

A closer look at the scores indicates just how wide-open the league really is. Top-seeded Delaware needed a last-minute comeback to beat UNC Wilmington, 66-65, at home and trailed Hofstra by double digits in the first half both at home and on Long Island.

UNC Wilmington, meanwhile, went 1-3 against Delaware and Towson—with a net point differential of negative-8. And Hofstra lost to Delaware, Towson and third-seeded William & Mary in an eight-day span last month by a total of 15 points.

“That 8/9 game is going to be a heckuva game,” Delaware coach Monte Ross said. “It’s not your typical 8/9 game in your league just because those guys have played so well against everybody else in the league. A lot of times in the league, you get an 8/9 game, you have some teams that were blown out and not really competitive.”

The CAA is far more competitive from top to bottom and between the haves and have-nots—and drastically so—than it has been at any point in the last 13 seasons.

Delaware went 8-0 against the bottom four teams in the league (College of Charleston, James Madison, Hofstra and UNC Wilmington) but had a net point differential of plus-51, the second-smallest figure for the no. 1 seed against the bottom four teams since 2001-02.

In addition, while bottom four teams went just 3-21 against the top three teams, their average margin of defeat was just 4.6 points per game. That is by far the smallest average margin of defeat for the bottom four against the top third since 2001-02.

“I think it says a lot about the bottom of our league, or the teams that finished towards the bottom, [that] they are very strong and have played everybody very, very tough,” Ross said.

The gap actually began closing last season—which was, not coincidentally, the first for the CAA without emerging national power VCU as well as the last season in the league for former conference heavyweights George Mason and Old Dominion, neither of whom had anything resembling a vintage season.

Last year, top-seeded Northeastern actually had a far hairier time against the bottom four teams than Delaware did this year. The Huskies went 6-2—only the second time since 2001-02 that the no. 1 seed has lost two games to the bottom four teams—with a net-point differential of just plus-14, an average of 1.8 points per game.

Meanwhile, the bottom four teams (William & Mary, UNC Wilmington, Hofstra and Old Dominion) went 2-27 against the top four (Delaware. Towson and James Madison finished two through four) but suffered an average margin of defeat of just 6.9 points per game.

That was less than half the average margin of defeat for the bottom four against the top four in 2011-12, when the top four went 29-0 against the bottom four while winning by an average of 14.4 points per game. That figure is elevated by the presence of 1-17 Towson, which was outscored by 180 points in its eight losses to the top four. But even disregarding Towson’s figures, the nine through 11 seeds lost 22 games by an average of 11.3 points per game.

In the 11 seasons between 2001-02 and 2011-12, the no. 1 seed outscored the bottom four teams by an average of at least 10 points per game. And in those 11 seasons, the top four teams in the CAA outscored the bottom four by an average of 10 points or more eight times—including in 2006, the first best year in CAA history, when the top four went 29-0 against the bottom four with an average margin of victory of 16.7 points per game.

Is the recent parity the new normal in the CAA? More importantly, and urgently, will this season’s parity finally translate into chaos in the tournament?

With a clear top two teams in Delaware and Towson, as well as a fourth seed in Drexel that is, like Delaware and Towson, playing within two hours of its campus, nobody should be surprised if the chalk has held once again come Sunday’s semifinals.

But the unprecedented balance within the CAA means nobody should be surprised, either, if a lower seed—or multiple lower seeds—sneaks into the semifinals or beyond. And it means everybody, from the outbracket contestants all the way up to the top seed, is taking on the March mantra of the underdog.

“We finished at the bottom, and I feel like any given night—heck, our game at Delaware, we ha a chance to win and ended up losing by one,” UNC Wilmington coach Buzz Peterson said. “Any given night, some crazy things can happen and have happened. It’s pretty even.”

“We have the same mindset, that anybody can win it,” Ross said. “Why not us?”

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Just The Facts 2014: Trying to beat a team three times in a season

Hope my reboot sucks less than that one.

Good afternoon and welcome to the reboot of Just The Facts, the data-heavy series of CAA Tournament preview posts that ran from 2010 through 2012 before I took off last season due to the crippling depression last season wrought.

I’m not a big fan of reboots, which are Hollywood’s lazy-ass way of generating something new without actually generating something new. If you watched Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place in your late teen years, you’d understand.

But it’s either dub this a reboot or dub it a sequel whose predecessor aired long ago, and the last sequel I saw like that was Scream 4, which I could not have enjoyed any less if Jim Larranaga was sitting behind me in the theatre kicking my chair. So reboot it is.


With the Flying Dutchmen facing UNC Wilmington in the 8/9 outbracket game—i.e. The Most Depressing Game Ever Played—on Friday night, it’s a good time to look at how the Dutchmen have fared when facing in tournament play a team whom they swept during the regular season.

The Dutchmen, of course, swept UNCW this year by winning 69-64 in One Tree Hill before coming back from a 15-point second half deficit to stun the Seahawks at Hofstra, 61-52. It’s the first time the Dutchmen have beaten a team twice in a season since Charles Jenkins roamed Hofstra, along with the dinosaurs, back in aught eleven.

The good news for the Dutchmen is the notion that it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season does not stand up to statistical evaluation. This weekend marks the 10th time in the Division I era that Hofstra has swept a conference opponent in regular season play before facing it in the tournament. The Dutchmen have won the last seven such tournament games, dating back to 1992, and are 7-2 overall in those contests. Here’s the complete list, with the conference in parenthesis.

2011: Beat William & Mary (CAA)
2009: Beat UNC Wilmington (CAA)
2001: Beat Vermont (America East)
2001: Beat Maine (America East)
2000: Beat Boston U. (America East)
2000: Beat Drexel (America East)
1992: Beat UMBC (East Coast Conference)
1991: Lost to UMBC (East Coast Conference)
1984: Lost to Lafayette (East Coast Conference)

League-wide, the trends are also in favor of the team that sweeps a regular season series before playing a third time in the tournament. Since 2001-02, when the CAA expanded to include the America East four (would just like to note we’re all still there, unlike your disloyal founding/core members—just sayin’), a team that wins both regular season meetings is 34-11 when meeting for a third time in the tournament, including 10-0 since Drexel fell to James Madison in the 2010 opening round. Here’s the full list:

2013: Delaware beats Hofstra, JMU beats W&M, Northeastern beats GMU, JMU beats Delaware
2012: Delaware beats Towson
2011: Drexel beats Towson, Delaware beats Northeastern, Hofstra beats W&M
2010: Drexel loses to JMU, ODU beats Towson, ODU beats W&M
2009: Hofstra beats UNCW, VCU beats Georgia State, JMU beats W&M, Drexel loses to Towson, GMU beats Towson
2008: VCU loses to W&M, UNCW loses to GMU
2007: VCU beats Georgia State, VCU beats GMU, GMU beats JMU, ODU loses to GMU, Drexel beats Northeastern, Northeastern beats Delaware, W&M loses to Georgia State
2006: VCU beats W&M, Northeastern beats JMU, Towson loses to Georgia State, UNCW beats Delaware
2005: VCU beats Delaware, ODU beats W&M, Drexel loses to Hofstra
2004: VCU beats Towson, VCU beats ODU, GMU beats UNCW, UNCW beats JMU
2003: Mason loses to Delaware, UNCW beats Hofstra, UNCW beats Drexel, UNCW beats Delaware, JMU beats Towson
2002: VCU beats ODU, GMU loses to Hofstra, W&M loses to JMU, UNCW beats JMU

All this said, there are at least three big, madly blinking caution signs here that warrant our attention. One is the natural fretting that something that hasn’t happened in 22 years—or, in the CAA’s case, in the last 10 games—is due to happen very soon.

The second is this year’s Dutchmen squad, which went 5-11 in CAA play, didn’t have nearly the kind of regular season that any of their predecessors on that list. The previous seven teams to sweep a team and then face it in the conference tournament all finished with winning records in league play. Only the 1991 (7-5 in the ECC) and 1984 (9-5 in the ECC) teams finished less than four games over .500 in conference.

Along those lines: The Dutchmen will be the sixth sub-.500 CAA team since 2001-02 to sweep an opponent during the regular season before facing it in the tournament. Their .313 winning percentage is the lowest of these six teams.

Three of the first five teams lost the tournament game. Here’s that list:

2011: Delaware (8-10) beats Northeastern (6-12)
2007: W&M (8-10) loses to Georgia State (5-13)
2006: Towson (8-10) loses to Georgia State (3-15)
2003: JMU (8-10) beats Towson (1-17)
2002: W&M loses (7-11) to JMU (6-12)

So heading into Friday night, history is squarely on the side of the Dutchmen, while also portending potential danger. So clearly, Just The Facts, intended to crystallize things, has done nothing but muddy the waters. Man. These reboots really do suck.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Out of nowhere, a reborn Upshaw helps a program rebuild

There’s no shortage of statistical evidence—nor methodology—to indicate just how good Zeke Upshaw has been for the Flying Dutchmen this season.

In terms of raw numbers, he is the second-leading scorer in the CAA at 19.7 points per game. He has scored a higher percentage of his team’s points—29.2 percent—than anyone in the top 10.

He has scored at least 25 points in eight games. For an idea of how impressive that is, Charles Jenkins had nine 25-point games as a senior three years ago.

Presuming he scores at least nine points in the next two games, Upshaw will finish with the highest scoring average for any graduate transfer ever. Of course, “ever” is a rather dramatic and misleading term, given that the graduate transfer rule—in which a player who has graduated may play immediately after transferring to another school that features a major not offered by the school from which he got his undergraduate degree—was only instituted prior to the 2011-12 season.

But Upshaw’s feat will not likely be diminished by the increasing pool of graduate transfers in the coming years. Division I rosters featured 46 graduate transfers this season, up from 15 two years ago. Nor is it likely that any future graduate transfer will match the dramatic ascent Upshaw authored in going from end-of-the-bench afterthought at Illinois State to superstar at Hofstra.

Upshaw averaged 1.6 points per game in 62 career games over three years at Illinois State. Of the 94 other graduate transfers, only nine averaged less than 1.6 points per game at their previous stop. And none of those nine averaged more than nine points per game as a graduate transfer.

“This couldn’t have happened at a better time for me,” Upshaw said this week.

Nor could he have happened at a better time for Hofstra, which, a year removed from the bleakest moments in the history of its men’s basketball program, had an impossible-to-quantify need for a feel-good tale such as Upshaw’s.

“It’s a great story—it’s as good a story in college basketball as there is, I think,” Joe Mihalich said. “I don’t know what else would be.”

This great story has not been without its challenging moments for its main characters, who came together at their most vulnerable times.

At Illinois State, Upshaw drew the dreaded “DNP-CD” 37 times. He was impressive in the few opportunities he did receive: Upshaw scored at least seven points seven times for the Redbirds and, in consecutive games last season, scored nine points on three late 3-pointers against Indiana State before collecting a career-high 11 points against national power Creighton.

“For not playing [much] the previous two or three years before that and having games like that against Creighton and a good team like Indiana State, that definitely gave me motivation to keep going (as well as) confidence,” Upshaw said.

That confidence was tested when Upshaw played in just 10 of the Redbirds’ final 19 games, a stretch in which he scored a total of 15 points.

“That sort of defined the whole year, because it was up and down,” Upshaw said. “My coach, he’s a good coach, but he was up and down the whole year with rotations.”

By the end of the season, Upshaw became aware of the graduate transfer option and switched majors—from apparel, merchandising and design to university studies—so that he could get his degree and play somewhere else this season.

Weeks later, Mihalich was walking out of his new office at Hofstra when his cell phone rang. It was Chicago-based Joe Henricksen, the founder of the Hoops Report scouting service and a longtime friend of Mihalich’s.

At his introductory press conference, Mihalich said he realized he had to find some players in a hurry but that he was already used to being thorough in recruiting after spending more than a decade at upstate Niagara.

“We’re going to recruit anywhere and everywhere,” Mihalich said April 10. “You answer every email and you make every phone call. You look at every tape that comes in. And if there’s a genuine mutual interest, you pursue it.”

Still, he probably didn’t expect to have to go to the lengths that Jay Wright did in 1994, when, in the pre-Internet era, he pursued players sight unseen to fill out his first Flying Dutchmen roster.

“Joe [says] ‘I think I’ve got a kid for you,’” Mihalich said.

After learning more about Upshaw and watching game footage of him on the Synergy Sports Tech website, Mihalich figured he was a talented player who slipped through the cracks because of coaching changes—he had been recruited to Illinois State by head coach Tim Jankovich and assistant coach Paris Parham, who left after the 2011-12 season to take assistant jobs at SMU and Illinois, respectively—and the misfortune of being stuck behind NBA prospect Jackie Carmichael.

The lure of ample playing time drew Upshaw to Hofstra, which he committed to shortly after visiting in the early summer. Pickup ball over the next few months made it clear he would be one of the go-to players on a team bereft of scoring options.

“We just needed a guy who was a good scorer,” Mihalich said. “We do it every year—who’s going to get what. How many points is Dion Nesmith going to score? How many points will Moussa Kone score?”

And how many points would Upshaw score?

“I think we figured we’d get about 12,” Mihalich said. “So we were wrong.”

It took until the fourth game of the season for Mihalich to realize how wrong he’d been. Upshaw scored 46 points over the first three games but gave no indication he’d be anything more than a solid if unspectacular place-holder.

He cramped in the second half of the season opener, when the Dutchmen blew a 13-point lead in losing to Monmouth, 88-84. Early foul trouble against Fairleigh Dickinson two days later limited Upshaw to eight minutes and seven points. And he wasn’t the Dutchmen’s most impressive player against defending national champion Louisville on Nov. 12 when Upshaw scored 17 points and pulled down six rebounds while Nesmith had 24 points, six assists and one steal.

But at Richmond on Nov. 19, Upshaw scored 37 points—only the 19th time in school history a player has collected at least 37 points in a game—as the Dutchmen never trailed in regulation before losing in overtime.

“I never played Richmond before, but I was familiar with the team—they’re always known for having good defensive teams and going to the [NCAA] Tournament,” Upshaw said. “Scoring that much against them definitely gave me confidence for the rest of the year.”

That effort also ratcheted up the pressure placed upon Upshaw by Mihalich, who began placing superstar demands on a player less than a year removed from spending his nights in warm-ups at the end of the bench. Finally, after an ugly 86-67 loss to Fairleigh Dickinson in Hackensack, Upshaw pleaded for a little understanding.

“There was a time I was hard on him—really hard on him,” Mihalich said “After that terrible loss to FDU, I brought every player in and talked to them one-on-one. He said ‘Coach, I’m not used to this.’ And it almost made me feel bad, because it was so short-sighted of me to not realize, you know what, the poor kid isn’t used to this: Being the best player, playing 38 minutes a game, having to be the leader, asking him to play defense, asking him to rebound.

“I realized I probably needed to back off a little bit of the veins-popping-out-of-your-forehead for letting your guy blow by you once in a while.”

Upshaw responded to Mihalich’s lighter touch by ratcheting up his play and putting the Dutchmen on his back as conference season began. In 15 CAA games, he has scored at least 20 points nine times, played 40 minutes 10 times and twice tied the school record for 3-pointers in a game (seven against UNC Wilmington and William & Mary).

He has more points in the last four games (107) than he did in three years at Illinois State (100). He has hit all 19 of his free throw attempts in the last two games, the most consecutive free throws by a Hofstra player since Mike Moore in 2010-11 and two more free throws than Upshaw converted for the Redbirds.

There have not been a lot of wins—heading into tonight’s home finale. the Dutchmen (4-11 CAA, 8-22 overall) have lost nine of their last 10 and are locked into the outbracket game of the CAA tournament next Friday against UNC Wilmington—but Upshaw’s play has helped define a team that has developed an endearing grittiness in losing 10 games by seven points or less, including each of its last three.

In bursting on to the scene with a flurry as impressive as it is brief, he has also helped hasten the healing process for a program and a fan base devastated by the disastrous events of last season.

“I want the student section to fill back up for these guys,” Upshaw said. “I take a lot of pride in getting that, and sort of rebuilding and re-healing the attitude of everybody—all the fans and everybody around Hofstra.”

It is impossible not to note the juxtaposition between Upshaw, who arrived with zero expectations and is thriving within the spirit of a relatively new rule that could be easily exploited by those with impure intentions, and the hotly hyped transfers who squandered second chances in destroying the Dutchmen last season.

The rebuilding and the rebirth has begun with a player who will be positively associated with Hofstra for far longer than he actually played here.

“Illinois State is a great school and I loved my time there,” Upshaw said. “But I feel like I’ve done more work here and everything has been great here. So, yeah, I’ll definitely be wearing my Hofstra shirts for the rest of my life.”

He hopes to be wearing those shirts overseas, where he plans to pursue professional opportunities this summer. But first, there’s a Senior Night more than 900 miles east of Illinois State, followed by at least two more chances to play 40 minutes and rack up 20-plus points. Who could have imagined that a year ago?

“Great story—just a great story,” Mihalich said. “I hope for his sake it has a happy ending of some sort. I don’t know how you define that. Winning the 8/9 game and then playing your whatever off [against the top seed a week from today]? I don’t know. I hope for his sake this can have a happy ending this year.”

Who’s to say it hasn’t already happened?

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Nwaukoni continues to benefit from his rebounding skills

A natural and uncanny ability for rebounding the basketball earned Stephen Nwaukoni a scholarship to Hofstra. When he walks on to the court for Senior Night this evening, he’ll have proven his rebounding skills weren’t limited to the court.

Nwaukoni is the lone member of Mo Cassara’s first recruiting class to play four seasons at Hofstra and the only current Dutchmen with first-hand recollections of the magical 2010-11 season. The last three years, of course, have warranted less flowery adjectives, but Nwaukoni takes—obvious pun alert!—pride in having overcome the rougher moments to spend his entire career in Hempstead, even if he had periods of self-doubt during the most trying times.

“I feel that’s just a natural thought of anybody who’s going through what we and the rest of the guys have been through—why remain in the program if we’re not doing good?” Nwaukoni said. “I stayed with the program and I just tried to work past it, work through it. And I’m glad to say I made it past it. And I’m proud of myself now for actually staying.”

Playing the final regular season game of his career tonight at Hofstra Arena will provide an appropriate punctuation mark to a Division I career born during a pickup game at the Arena during the spring of 2010. Nwaukoni had generated some interest from a handful of lower-level D-I schools but hadn’t found a match in a more competitive league until he visited Hofstra, where his rebounding prowess during the impromptu game impressed Cassara and lead recruiter Steve DeMeo.

He has continued to hone his rebounding skills and became just the 12th player in program history to record 700 career rebounds when he reached the milestone against William & Mary on Wednesday night. His rebounding average has increased in each of his four seasons at Hofstra, from 3.3 as a freshman to 8.3 this season.

Nwaukoni is just the third Dutchmen to reach 700 rebounds in the last 30 years, and while Nwaukoni’s game isn’t as complete as those of Kenny Adeleke (837 rebounds) or Roberto Gittens (809 rebounds), his gift for rebounding is as impressive as anyone who’s ever played at Hofstra.

“No one goes after that basketball as good as him,” Joe Mihalich said.

“I was never really a scorer,” Nwaukoni said. “Essentially, I’ve always had that knack for rebounding. I know where to position myself, I know where the ball’s going, I know how to follow the trajectory of the ball. I just always had it.”

When consistency eludes Nwaukoni—he’s had at least seven rebounds in 23 games this season but four or less in five games—he fires up game footage to examine his flaws.

“There are times where I had a three-rebound night, maybe because of foul trouble or just because I wasn’t playing good, and I’ve watched the film and I notice I should have positioned myself in one area or I should have boxed somebody out,” Nwaukoni said.

Former Dutchmen bigs with far lesser resumes have played professionally, so Nwaukoni’s propensity for rebounding and attention to detail should benefit him as he pursues a career overseas.

“Stephen has that one thing he can do that gets him on the court,” Mihalich said. “He rebounds the ball so well that it gets him on the floor and makes him special and might make him some money.”

“Basketball is not over for me yet,” Nwaukoni said. “Once I graduate, I’m definitely trying to pursue a professional career. Work my [rear end] off, just try and get a contract with an overseas team. That’s the goal.”

In the short-term, Nwaukoni hopes to rein in his emotions tonight, when his entire family and some former coaches will be in attendance for his home finale. He said he expected to see his mind to be filled with the memories, good and bad, of an interesting career at Hofstra that certainly tested his rebounding skills in ways he couldn’t have imagined four years ago.

“I was saying to the other guys it’s been a rollercoaster—freshman year we were winning a lot consistently, sophomore and junior year, we went really downhill,” Nwaukoni said. “I tried to be persistent and I still believed I could do something in this program and help the university out.

“It’s crazy, it’s going to be my last home game. But I can say I’m moving on with no regrets.”

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Steinberg manages to write a unique walk-on story

Senior Night at Hofstra Arena tonight will feature Stephen Nwaukoni, who survived four of the most tumultuous years in program history, and Zeke Upshaw, who is merely going to score six times as many points in his one season at Hofstra than he did in three years at Illinois State.

Yet the most unique story amongst Hofstra seniors may belong to Dan Steinberg, whose two points in four minutes over five games thus far represent more points, minutes and games than he played in high school.

Have we mentioned he’s a former team manager who earned a spot as a walk-on when he unknowingly dunked in front of Joe Mihalich?

“The team, all the players, showed up in the rec [center] because they had pick-up there,” Steinberg said. “And I was playing with the regular students. I dunked on someone and coach walked in right before I did that. So I thought it was divine intervention.”

The well-timed dunk capped a four-year climb to the active roster that featured plenty of stops, starts and near-misses. Steinberg, who stands 6-foot-7 but didn’t try out for his high school team in New Jersey despite numerous requests by the head coach, joined the basketball program as a freshman after chatting with former assistant coach Steve DeMeo during a freshman orientation program at the Student Center.

“I always wanted to be part of something that was bigger than myself,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg hit it off with the 2010-11 team and often shot around and worked out with fellow big men Greg Washington and Roland Brown. He briefly left Hofstra after the fall semester in 2011 to attend Division III Kean in New Jersey, where he played two minutes in one game, before returning to Hempstead and resuming his manager role for the 2012-13 school year.

An opportunity to play for the Dutchmen appeared to present itself in November 2012, when the roster was decimated by the arrest and immediate dismissal of the four knuckleheads. But Steinberg’s cameo at Kean left him ineligible to play last season.

Steinberg remained a manager under Mihalich, whose lean roster needed another body. And who but a manager could be better prepared for the anonymous duty of serving as a walk-on?

“I still kind of see myself as an extension of the manager,” Steinberg said. “When people warm up before practice, I’ll just rebound for them. I don’t need to get up shots. They need people like Dion [Nesmith] and Zeke to get up shots as much as possible.

“Even in practice, I only play as much as they need me to, because the players need the reps. The players are going to be the ones out there 40 minutes. I’ll just try to do my best. Same thing as a manager—I tried to help the team as much as I could.”

Of course, there are some pretty big differences between being a manager and being a walk-on. He’s traveled with the Dutchmen all season, a marked change from his time as a manager, when he went to just three road games (the Oregon State game in November 2011 and the William & Mary/James Madison road trip in early 2013).

There’s also a certain undeniable change in perception within the team between a walk-on and a manager.

“As a manager, you kind of have that distance—the players know that you’re always going to report back to the coaches, you’re always going to do certain things like that.” Steinberg said. “When you’re a player, you’re more on the inside.”

A player also gets the chance to score in a Division I game, which Steinberg—with his parents watching in the stands—did when he drained a jumper in the final two minutes of the Dutchmen’s 86-67 loss to Fairleigh Dickinson on Jan. 5.

“To be honest, I would have much rather been up 20 than down 20,” Steinberg said. “We got yelled at pretty badly in the locker room after the game. It didn’t matter if I scored two points or 20 points or no points.”

Nor did Steinberg need to score a basket to derive indescribable satisfaction out of completing his unlikely emergence as a Division I player.

“It means everything—it means everything,” Steinberg said. “I can’t even put it into words.”

The home finale is usually the one chance for senior walk-ons to get extended playing time, if not an actual start, but Steinberg enters tonight unconcerned over how much he may or may not play.

As he has most of the previous four seasons, he will head to the Arena tonight hoping to provide assistance in any way possible, albeit this time delivered from a vantage point experienced by few walk-ons or student managers anywhere.

“To be honest, any minutes that I get is more minutes than I expected at the beginning of the year,” Steinberg said. “So if [Mihalich] puts me in I’ll be ready. And if he doesn’t, I’ll be happy being there.”

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