Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Dutchmen, one-time overnight sensations, need to become hip today

So this is what I originally wrote as the first graph of this blog entry last Sunday, and would have appeared as the first graph of this blog if I’d managed to post it Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday:

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: As much as the Flying Dutchmen’s 69-63 loss to James Madison on Saturday sucked—and it sucked more than the suckiest bunch of sucks have ever sucked—it beats the alternative we’ve lived through the last three years.

Good thing I didn’t post it. Because Wednesday night’s 100-78 loss to William & Mary was infinitely suckier than the suckiest bunch of sucks that have ever sucked.

So this is what I originally wrote as the second graph of this blog entry, etc etc:

In a weird, twisted, possibly life-affirming way, watching the Dutchmen do everything wrong to blow a 14-point lead and lose by two possessions was infinitely better than watching them do almost everything right and still lose by a point or two, which happened on a nearly nightly basis during the first three seasons of the post-Charles Jenkins Era.

Wrong again. I could go on, and post every graph I wrote and then amend it, but you get the point. What was initially just a worrisome and maddening hiccup is now a full-fledged embarrassment, a stretch of four losses in five games that causes me to reconsider what I was writing earlier in the week.

Too hyperbolic? I’m usually guilty as charged of that, but I might be understating things considering some of these facts from Wednesday night:

--The Dutchmen never led, trailed by 27 points just 13:38 into the game, trailed 54-34 at the half and ended up surrendering 100 points to a CAA opponent for the first time. The last time they gave up 100 points in a league game was Jan. 6, 1996, when Drexel handed the Dutchmen a 101-71 loss. That was so long ago, the America East was still called the North Atlantic Conference. And I was still in school.

--To lose by 21 when down by 27 13:38 into the game doesn’t look that bad. Except the Dutchmen cut the gap to 11 six minutes into the second half and trailed by 12 with six minutes left. William & Mary then ended the game on a 23-14 run. So there was no way to even spin the loss as “Well, it was bad, but it could have been worse.”

--The Dutchmen gave up their 100th point in the most slapstick way possible. With the full-court press on against the end of the Tribe bench, Rokas Gustys forced a turnover with 33 seconds left. Alas, Ameen Tanksley turned it over four seconds later and Oliver Tot not only hit a fast break layup for the Tribe’s 99th and 100th points but got intentionally fouled by Eliel Gonzalez in the process.

--The Dutchmen allowed William & Mary to shoot 64.8 percent from the field. It was the highest shooting percentage surrendered by the Dutchmen in the CAA era, breaking the record set a whopping two weeks earlier against Northeastern (63.8 percent).

--Guess how many times over the previous three seasons—during which the Dutchmen were almost impossibly undermanned and overmatched—the Dutchmen lost a CAA game by at least 21 points? Three times, and only twice in the regular season, both in 2012-13, when the Dutchmen were at their most impossibly undermanned and overmatched.

So yeah. It was bad.

Following the James Madison loss—in which the Dutchmen blew a 14-point second half lead to fall for the third time in four games following a 4-0 start in CAA play—I had a thesis going that the current skid for the Dutchmen was the basketball equivalent of a first fight with a new girlfriend or boyfriend, the one who healed the wounds administered by the psycho hosebeast from hell—in this case, the 2012-13 season—and made it possible to fall in love again.

And, well, I kinda liked it, so I’m gonna run with it.

My theory was that patience had to be exercised and that at some point adjustments need to be made to the quirks, flaws and imperfections that inevitably crop up between both parties.

Those traits are impossible to see when a relationship begins with a bunch of Coppin States and Jacksonvilles and Central Connecticuts, in which all the shots are falling and all the fun is being had and the passion runs white-hot. There’s a Stony Brook night at the start of any relationship, in which a dance with danger ends in euphoric fashion. The adrenaline of something new carries us through even the occasionally less-than-stellar North Carolina State or South Florida experience.

If there was a point of no return in this emotional investment, it was obliterated during the first two weeks of the new year, when the Dutchmen received a vote in the AP Top 25 courtesy of John Feinstein (whose books amazingly just became a lot more readable to me), were pegged as the CAA’s NCAA Tournament representative in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology (which amazingly just became a lot more tolerable to me) and beat the league’s three southernmost teams on the road—UNC Wilmington, College of Charleston and Elon—in becoming the only CAA team to open 4-0 in conference play.

But no partnership can run in the red forever. At some point, stuff the other one does starts to, quite frankly, drive you nuts.

He drinks a six-pack of Mountain Dew a day, and stacks the cans along the windowsill in his dorm room like some kind of avant garde art project. He reads four newspapers a day, ostensibly for any articles about Hofstra sports, but he rarely clips articles and instead stacks the papers as if trying to start a fire that’ll burn down Vander Poel Hall in five minutes. He isn’t making any money, but spends a lot of cash on compact discs, which fortunately will never go out of style. He really likes hair metal, which went out of style four years ago.

(Hey Michelle give me back the keyboard!)

In this case, we are starting to notice that under second-year coach Joe Mihalich, the Dutchmen’s shoot-their-way-out-of-it approach to offensive slumps makes their current skid possible.

Against William & Mary, Mihalich called one timeout during the disastrous first half—after the Dutchmen fell behind by 27 with 6:17 left, not when a 5-5 tie turned into a 16-5 deficit during a seven-possession stretch in which Hofstra racked up more turnovers (four) than missed shots (three).

Against James Madison, he used only one timeout in the second half—not during the Dukes’ 14-0 run that erased a 12-point lead midway through the half but right after a 3-pointer by Brian Bernardi gave the Dutchmen a 59-58 lead with 5:25 left.

On Jan. 17, the Dutchmen squandered a six-point lead in the final 5:42 of a 79-74 loss to UNC Wilmington. The Dutchmen finished the game by going 1-for-9 from the field in their last 12 possessions. Mihalich used three timeouts in the second half, one in the first 90 seconds after the Seahawks tied the game and two in the final 90 seconds with Hofstra down one point both times.

In their first CAA loss against Northeastern on Jan. 14, the Dutchmen hoisted a remarkable 75 shots in falling, 91-83. That game turned late in the second half, when the Dutchmen went scoreless from the field during seven straight possessions that turned a one-point lead into a nine-point deficit.

Mihalich called four timeouts in the final 8:27—one immediately after Northeastern took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by David Walker and three in the final 79 seconds. The Dutchmen were no closer than seven points at any of the timeouts.

So we know now that Mihalich—whose Niagara teams scored at least 100 points 18 times in his 15 seasons at the school, a stretch in which Hofstra reached 100 points twice—doesn’t like to slow the pace, even when his team is struggling. We know that he treats timeouts like Dean Smith (GOOGLE IT CRAIN).

In addition, the high-octane offense that is so much fun to watch—the Dutchmen are averaging 78.7 points per game this season, the most since the 1977-78 team averaged 81.3 points per game—results in a lot of points being scored the other way, which is magnified when the Dutchmen are struggling to score themselves.

The Dutchmen are allowing an average of 68.6 points per game, a figure exceeded by seven of the previous 13 Hofstra squads. However, the Dutchmen are allowing opposing teams to shoot 44.7 percent, which would be the third-highest figure surrendered by Hofstra since the move to the CAA in 2001. Last year’s team allowed opponents to shoot 45.3 percent while the 2011-12 squad allowed opponents to shoot 45.7 percent.

In mid-major land, a team that scores a lot is probably going to give up a lot. Still, this requires some adjustments, especially for fans used to the sludgy style of Tom Pecora, in which it seemed every game ended up 65-60.

And none of these statistics indicate that Mihalich’s way—and by extension, the new Dutchmen way—is wrong. In fact, there’s ample evidence to suggest it works: Niagara won 265 games, reached two NCAA Tournaments and three NITs in his 15 seasons. There’s a very good chance this relationship works for the long-term.

But it’s not wrong either to have been disappointed by the Northeastern loss, frustrated with the UNC Wilmington loss, downright furious with the James Madison loss and some combination of disappointed, frustrated and furious after the William & Mary loss.

The emotions are heightened by the down nature of the CAA and the sense that, for the first time since the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, Hofstra has a legitimate chance to win the league and advance to the NCAA Tournament. The frustration is fueled by the gift the Dutchmen received on Jan. 21, when a wire-to-wire win over Drexel coupled with Delaware’s upset of William & Mary vaulted the Dutchmen back into a tie for first place,

Three days later, they were in a tie for fourth. Now they’re all alone in fifth, two games behind William & Mary and UNC-Wilmington, the latter of whom has a first-year coach directing the same bunch of players that finished dead last in the CAA last year.

History is, of course, littered with teams that recovered from poor games or poor stretches to flirt with or make history in March. VCU’s Final Four team ended the regular season with four losses in five games, including a 20-point loss to George Mason.

Last season, William & Mary lost four CAA games by at least 15 points—including a 17-point loss at Hofstra, which finished the season with five league wins—yet came within a missed Marcus Thornton buzzer-beater of winning the conference title game (sorry, Gheorghe The Blog)

Whether the Dutchmen bounce all the way back to the NCAA Tournament or not, there will be better, November- and December-esque days ahead, perhaps as soon as this week. Beginning tonight, the Dutchmen’s next three games are against the bottom-tier trio of Towson, Delaware and Elon. So perhaps the Northeastern rematch on Feb. 12 will be for a share of second place, or of first place.

We will adjust to each other’s quirks, and begin to laugh about them instead of letting them ruining an otherwise fine evening, as this new relationship evolves.

But right now, we want more from a basketball team that has scaled heights this season the program didn’t even come close to achieving the previous three years, and more than a fiery start resulting in a quick flameout in the CAA Tournament.

Less than an hour after the loss to James Madison, I was in line to see Extreme (i.e. The Official Band of Defiantly Dutch) at The Space at Westbury. While waiting, I heard the band’s soundcheck and their performance of the 1995 song “Hip Today.” I promptly texted the chorus—“You’ll be gone tomorrow, you’ll be gone tomorrow, hip today”—to my wife as a summation of what we'd just seen. That’s normal, right?

As better as things are now than they were one, two and three years ago at this time, it’s no longer enough. We want the Dutchmen to become hip again beginning tonight, and to remain that way for the next 37 days.

(At least)