Wednesday, February 4, 2015

I don’t like what I see here

Good news: At least I tied this into another Extreme song! (That may be bad news to you)

It doesn’t take a whole lot of prompting to understand sports brings out the worst in us. The Super Bowl was played on Sunday (oh, and there was Hofstra representation, AGAIN, #ThanksStu), and I was one of the approximately four hundred billion Americans who ignored the horrendous impact football has on its combatants—and the complete lack of regard by the NFL and its pathological commissioner for the short- or long-term health of the men who make the league billions every year—in order to overindulge on food and commerce while occasionally paying attention to the action on the field.

Of course, you need not be part of a giant communal experience to realize how screwy sports can turn someone. You can simply, to borrow a phrase used Saturday night by Flying Dutchmen basketball coach Joe Mihalich following the latest embarrassment produced by his team, look in the mirror.

What I saw staring back at me, Saturday night into Sunday into Monday into Tuesday into Wednesday, was a 41-year-old madder than he’s ever been over the fortunes of his alma mater’s men’s basketball team.

I mean, how messed up is that? Who gets that worked up over kids half his age wearing the right laundry bouncing a basketball up and down a 94-foot court?

My Mom, heaven rest her soul, would be so disappointed in her eldest child acting like a child. “It’s just a game,” she said every time I threw a temper tantrum over sports, and of course, she was right every time.

But even if I were to wave her off this time, there would still be no sane, quantifiable reason—none at all—why I should be madder about the Flying Dutchmen basketball team this season than I was about any of the last three teams.

The Flying Dutchmen are 14-9 this season. They went 27-70 the previous three seasons, the losingest three-season run in program history.

Better yet, unlike in 2011-12 or 2012-13, nobody on this team has been suspended by the head coach.

Nobody has been banished from the team without an explanation, only to return for three games before deciding to “leave school,” never to be heard from again until he ended up in the police blotter.

Nobody has disappeared from the team without explanation before the first practice of the season, only to reappear without explanation once the first semester ended, only to graduate and leave following the second semester and land at another school, never to be heard from again until he ended up in the police blotter. Twice.

Most importantly, nobody has been arrested for stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of stuff from classmates, or for possessing weed, or for whatever was found during a traffic stop right behind campus.

This team has, as far as we all know, done what it is supposed to do. Its players have remained out of trouble and remained eligible by managing to balance class work with practice, competition and travel. Performing this juggling act and producing a solid effort every time they take the court is all we should demand or expect out of Hofstra basketball players.

And there is the problem. For the first time since I arrived on campus in the fall of 1993, I am questioning the effort of the men’s basketball team.

Actually, “questioning” is too kind a term. I know what I’m seeing during a stretch of five losses in six games by the Dutchmen that followed a 4-0 start in CAA play, and what I’m not. And so does Joe Mihalich.

“This game honors toughness and the toughest team won the game tonight,” Mihalich said Saturday night following the latest defeat, an 86-72 loss to Towson. “We just got out-toughed.”

It wasn’t the first time.

The Dutchmen have flat-out not tried hard enough during this current skid. Hurried jumpers by ice-cold players. Wide-open lanes for players of all sizes (Four McGlynn? Really?) to drive in for easy layups. Several steps worth of sag providing opponents plenty of room to stop, pop and drop jump shots. Awful—and I mean awful—body language, by everyone—and I mean everyone—on the court and on the sidelines.

Here’s the scary thing: It’s getting worse. The game-costing lulls have gotten longer with each loss, to the point that it is easier to identify when the Dutchmen were giving an honest effort the last two games against William & Mary and Towson than when they weren’t.

Against the Tribe and Tigers, the Dutchmen shot 39.2 percent overall—but 27.2 percent (15-for-55) from 3-point land and 48.6 percent (34-for-70) from inside the arc.

The Tribe and Tigers combined to shoot 61.6 percent against the Dutchmen. Hofstra allowed two opponents to shoot at least 61.6 percent in the preceding 432 games dating back to the start of the 2001-02 season.

Looking for another barometer that stretches back to the start of the second Bush administration? The back-to-back losses to William & Mary and Towson marked the first time the Dutchmen have lost consecutive CAA games by at least 14 points since January 12-14, 2002, when they fell to James Madison and George Mason.

In addition, the Dutchmen had 18 fewer rebounds than Towson. Rebounding margin is to basketball stats what batting average is to baseball stats, but here’s some more evidence backing up a relic: The Dutchmen had one less defensive rebound (11) than Towson had offensive rebounds. And with 9:17 left in the second half, Towson’s John Davis missed two free throws, but teammate Timajh Parker-Rivera grabbed the board and drained a short jumper to give the Tigers their first double-digit lead of the night.

“There was a missed shot, they went and got it,” Mihalich said. “They wanted it more than we wanted it. They were tougher, probably, in every way, shape or form.”

Including mentally. On Saturday night, the Dutchmen alternated between giving Towson easy baskets, surrendering rebounds and complaining about the calls they weren’t getting from the officials, until the final minute, when a technical foul was issued to the bench.

Nobody loves complaining about the refs more than me, but you know what? How about you shut up, play better and get better calls? Try that. There is no game more impacted by human nature than basketball. Officials are going to give the benefit of the doubt on coin toss calls to the team that’s playing better. Not the one that’s playing awful and screaming about it every time up the court.

“We’ve got to change,” Mihalich said. “We’ve got to come up with something.”

Here’s a suggestion (a little late to help tonight, but work with me here): Pop in some DVDs from the last three seasons and check out the effort with which those Dutchmen teams played. They were undermanned and overmatched almost every time out, but they played HARD.

They got punched in the face, symbolically, over and over again, And they almost always responded, if not with victories then with exhausting effort that sometimes left them as beaten as Tex Cobb GOOGLE IT CRAIN but filled us with a pride that superseded the shame we felt following the actions of their ex-teammates.

Of those 70 losses the last three seasons, 29 were by seven points or less or in overtime, including 22 of the Dutchmen’s 43 CAA losses. And now, in a league that is immeasurably worse than it was three years ago and with the most talented Hofstra team since the back-to-back-to-back NIT squads, the Dutchmen are getting beaten by deficits not seen since the program’s first year in the CAA.

Inexcusable. Give me Stevie Mejia, right now. Please.

“It’s the guy in the mirror,” Mihalich said. “It’s not the guy next to you, not the guy behind you. It’s the guy in the mirror. To a person in that room, we’ve got to change.”

So, to be honest, does Mihalich.

Mihalich’s unyieldingly demanding ways left me impressed following the Dutchmen’s most recent win, a wire-to-wire 86-58 drubbing of Drexel in which he spent most of the game acting like the Dutchmen were down 28 instead of up 28. Good, I thought. As much as I am content with a Hofstra team producing a full effort, win or lose, it was nice to have reached the point in the rebuilding process where a coach was an ornery, hard-ass nitpicker during lopsided victories.

But Mihalich, a grinder who is consumed with the game every second of every minute of every hour of everyday, needs to soften his tone and his message and ease up on the accelerator in order to get through to a fragile team.

“We’ve all been through ruts like this,” Mihalich said. “We’ve just got to keep banging our head against the wall and think of whatever it is we can do.”

How about less banging of the head? The Dutchmen aren’t giving him any reason to be positive, or to let up, but the constant negativity is dropping them further into this hole.

Maybe it won’t work. But nobody likes what they’re seeing, on the floor or in the mirror. Better try something, before some of us decide what we see on the floor isn’t worth what we see in the mirror.

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