Sunday, February 22, 2015

Of parity with (long-ago) precedent, and one-hit wonders

Extreme parity in a college basketball conference is a lot like extreme weather. An extended bone-chilling cold snap—or sweaty heat wave—is not unprecedented, even though it is rare enough to warrant both hyperbolic reaction and the belief it’s never happened before.

So it’s fair for me, and anyone else my age or even a little bit older, to believe the inclusion of the Flying Dutchmen in a frantic five-way race for the CAA men’s basketball regular season title has never happened before.

A gritty 87-82 win over Towson Wednesday night improved the Dutchmen to 9-6 in CAA play and, coupled with complete chaos throughout the rest of the league pulled them within one game of the four teams tied for first place: William & Mary, Northeastern, UNC Wilmington and James Madison. The Dutchmen will try to loosen that logjam while remaining a game out of first today, when they host William & Mary.

It is not unprecedented for Hofstra to be involved in such a free-for-all. But February 1990 was a long time ago.

I was a high school junior, spending most of my time “running” indoor track. I had neither a blog nor a Twitter account, but if I did, both would have been dubbed “Defiantly Dateless.” I was just following the advice of Jane Child, whose lone hit, “Don’t Wanna Fall In Love,” was climbing the charts to no. 2 and pouring out of speakers in cars driven by teenagers yet owned by their parents.

And 125 miles southwest of my hometown, the men’s basketball program for a school I hadn’t even heard of yet was involved in a wild five-way race for the regular season championship in a conference I may or may not have invented in my mind.

There were subtle differences in the then vs. now comparison: With three games remaining in the 1989-90 East Coast Conference season, there were four teams tied for second, and chasing a lone first-place team, instead of vice versa. The ECC had just eight teams and played only 14 regular season games, instead of the 10-team, 18-game alignment possessed by the CAA.

But like now, Hofstra was doing the chasing. The second team of Butch van Breda Kolff’s second tenure was among the quartet of 6-5 teams chasing Lehigh. Really. This happened.

1989-90 ECC standings through 11 games
Lehigh 7-4
Towson State 6-5
Delaware 6-5
Lafayette 6-5
Drexel 5-6
Rider 5-6
Bucknell 4-7

Four CAA schools, three Patriot schools and a MAAC school walk into a bar…

Technically, the ECC in 1989-90 was even wilder than the CAA is now. Without looking at the remaining schedules for every team—what do you think I am, crazy?—it appears as if all eight schools still had a shot at a share of the regular season title while seven were in the running to win it outright.

But what we have now is pretty spectacular. Every November and December, we opine that the current season is wildly unpredictable and anyone can win. But it never happens that way. Someone or someones—usually a UNC Wilmington, a VCU, an Old Dominion or a George Mason—break away from the pack and make the tournament a miracle-or-bust affair for the rest of us.

Since Hofstra joined the North Atlantic Conference in 1994, only four times—in 1997-98, 1998-99, 2005-06 and 2008-09—have the top four teams in the Dutchmen’s conference finished a season separated by two games or less.

The closest race the Dutchmen have been a part of took place during the 1997-98 season, when 12-6 Delaware and Boston University finished a game ahead of Hofstra, Hartford and Vermont and two ahead.

But Delaware had a two-game lead entering the 15th game of the ’97-98 season. And in each of the other three close race seasons, first and fourth place were already separated by at least two games with three league games to go.

1997-98 America East standings through 15 games
1.) Delaware 11-4
2.) HOFSTRA 9-6
2.) Boston U. 9-6
2.) Vermont 9-6
5.) Hartford 8-7
6.) Drexel 7-8

1998-99 America East standings through 15 games
1.) Drexel 13-2
2.) Delaware 12-3
3.) HOFSTRA 11-4
3.) Maine 11-4

2005-06 CAA standings through 15 games
1.) George Mason 13-2
2.) UNCW 12-3
3.) HOFSTRA 11-4
3.) Old Dominion 11-4

2006-07 CAA standings through 15 games
1.) VCU 13-2
2.) HOFSTRA 12-3
2.) Old Dominion 12-3
4.) Drexel 11-4

2008-09 CAA standings through 15 games
1.) VCU 11-4
1.) Northeastern 11-4
3.) George Mason 10-5
4.) Old Dominion 9-6

If we can’t have the best-case scenario (Hofstra in first place with three games to play, which has not happened in the CAA era) then this (the Dutchmen one game back with three to go for just the second time in the CAA) is a pretty good alternative.

The stars have aligned—or, more accurately, realigned thanks to the departures of the perpetually excellent VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason—and created a chaotic race which generates in us the type of fresh-faced, wide-eyed, anything goes optimism that isn’t just the loyal Hofstra faithful trying to delude itself into believing the impossible. Isn’t it awesome, especially given how frustrated we were just a couple weeks ago?

It is easy, as with a spell of bad weather, to say this is the new normal. The state of the CAA would seem to present plenty of opportunities for topsy-turvy races moving forward. But let’s remember that the ECC was on its way to being dismantled in 1990, and that the back-to-back close races in the America East in the late ‘90s were followed by the CAA poaching the best of the America East.

So what we have today—the Dutchmen playing a first-place team with a chance to remain a game out of first and keep alive their hopes of finishing first—is a rare gift. It might not take 25 years to experience it again, but you’d better cherish it anyway, just in case this parity turns out to be Jane Child.

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