Saturday, February 27, 2016

For Hofstra's senior class, the time of their lives

At around 3:40 this afternoon, Joe Mihalich will see his life flash before his eyes, just as he has during his 17 previous Senior Days at Hofstra and Niagara. But this cavalcade of images will be the most surreal one yet.

“It’s emotional, tears are going to flow and you’re choking back the tears and the memories are just racing through your mind,” Mihalich said this week. “I know that it’s a cliche or corny or whatever, but it’s amazing how fast times goes.”

Especially for this Flying Dutchmen senior class.

The four seniors who will be honored this afternoon—Juan’ya Green, Ameen Tanksley, Malik Nichols and Denton Koon—have spent just seven seasons playing at Hofstra. This is the sixth senior class of consisting of at least four players since 1994, but the previous five classes all had at least 14 years of combined experience in Hempstead.

Despite their short stints with the Flying Dutchmen, the quartet have a chance to cement themselves in Hofstra history by completing a rebuilding process that began when Mihalich took over in April 2013.

With a victory over College of Charleston today, the Dutchmen will likely win the CAA regular season title for the first time ever and lock up at least a berth in the NIT. If they can win three games in as many days next weekend in Baltimore, the Dutchmen will dance for the first time since the second of back-to-back trips in 2001.

“It’s special just to know that we’ve got an opportunity to do something really big and always be remembered in this university,” Tanksley said.

There’s no better symbol for the road Green, Tanksley, Nichols and Koon have traveled than the sight Tuesday of Dan Steinberg—the graduate manager who played as a senior walk-on to help fill out the roster during Mihalich’s first season—coordinating the post-practice stretching while Speedy Claxton, the assistant coach who led Hofstra to the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 2000, shot 3-pointers a few feet away.

The work took place in a practice facility that wasn’t built when Mihalich arrived and underneath banners honoring all of Hofstra’s conference championships and appearances in the NCAA and NIT.

“We went to the banquet for the (Hofstra) Hall of Fame teams early in the year, Koon said. “To see that was cool (with) Coach Speedy. To kind of try to put our team and what we could accomplish in one year (in) the context of a program that’s been able to do some good things—hopefully we can be a part of that.”

The pursuit of a legacy-clinching NCAA Tournament has been as compelling as the path each player took to get to this point. Green and Tanksley, of course, transferred from Niagara shortly after Mihalich took the Hofstra job in April 2013. Koon, the third graduate transfer to suit up for the Dutchmen in as many years, joined the program after getting his degree at Princeton last spring. 

The most challenging road has been traveled by Nichols, who was Mo Cassara’s first high-profile recruit during the 2010-11 season.

But Nichols’ Mom died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve 2010 and he eventually decommitted before taking the 2011-12 season off. Nichols then enrolled at South Plains Junior College in Texas, where his glue guy style and ability to provide a spark, especially on defense, won over Mihalich.

“The need for a front-court guy — we loved his versatility,” Mihalich said. 

After starting 22 games as a junior last season, Nichols slid into the sixth man role as a senior and thrived—until Jan. 24, when he landed awkwardly following a dunk against William & Mary and tore the ACL and MCL in his knee.

“I came down, I just heard a ‘pop’ so I’m like, an, I just hope it’s not an ACL,” Nichols said.

“You just can’t believe it, it’s just surreal,” Mihalich said. “It’s your greatest fear, that anybody gets hurt. But it just doesn’t seem fair that a senior, his last game would be one where he gets hurt and can’t play.”

Mihalich marveled at how well Nichols has handled the injury, literally from the moment it happened. Nichols remained calm as he laid on the floor, as if he had already come to grips with the end of his career. He had surgery less than two weeks ago and continues to accompany the Dutchmen to practice and to games.

“He’s had a tough route,” Mihalich said. “He’s been through some heartache. It’s why he’s a good person, because he’s dealt with things like this—whether it’s the loss of his mother or the end of his college career—he’s learned to deal with it and still be strong.”

Nichols admitted he’s experienced some wistfulness over the last month, as he savors the final days of a Hofstra career he once thought he’d never experience.

“I would say I cherish it,” Nichols said. “But at the same time, it ended too early in my eyes.”

Koon’s collegiate career appeared as if it might have ended midway through the 2013-14 season, when the then-junior at Princeton suffered a patella tendon injury. Koon recovered in time for the start of practice the following fall before straining an ACL just before the start of the season.

He was healthy enough to play by the middle of the season, at which point he had to decide if he wanted to burn his final season of eligibility—student-athletes can’t redshirt in the Ivy League—or if he wanted to sit out, graduate and play somewhere else.

“I was only going to be looking at 12, 15 games maybe,” Koon said. “So I wanted to be able to fully train and prepare and have a full senior season.”

In Hofstra, Koon found a school offering not only the master’s degree—he is pursuing an MBA in sports and entertainment management—he wanted but also the playing time. Previous graduate transfers Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith each emerged from non-descript undergraduate careers to earn all-CAA honors under Mihalich.

“Clearly, we’ve gone 3-for-3,” Mihalich said. “What I look for with a transfer or a guy like that is—and again, I’m using a cliche here—but I just want to make sure they have that twinkle in their eye. They still have the love of the game. They’re not so burned out or negative or lost the love of the game because of the bad experiences they might have had.”

Koon, who started just 27 games in three seasons at Princeton, has started all 29 for the Dutchmen while ranking among the top 20 in the CAA in scoring (11.6 points per game) and top 10 in rebounding (6.9 rebounds per game). He is playing an average of 35.9 minutes per game, a figure he exceeded just seven times in 78 games for Princeton. 

Koon has made no secret about how much he’s enjoyed the opportunity to finally play heavy minutes. He elicited laughs following a 65-60 win over Northeastern last Saturday, when he said the Dutchmen are finally thriving in late-game situations “…half our team’s approaching 30 years old.” (Koon is only 23) 

“I thought my college career could have gone one way and you kind of just take the blows as they come,” Koon said. “Just knowing that I’ve been able to have one last season and been able to play the minutes and been able to be on the court and finally getting the chance to do that—in the context of being a senior and knowing it’s my last one, I think I’ve really just enjoyed it.”

Only Green and Tanksley had to sit out upon arriving at Hofstra, which was quite an adjustment to make in more ways than one. Green started every game in two seasons at Niagara while Tanksley started all but one, so the redshirt season in 2013-14—when the Dutchmen suffered a third straight 20-loss campaign—proved to be a unique experience for the high school rivals turned best friends.

“The first game we were sitting out, the guys were warming up and we were sitting on the side and me and Ameen looked at each other kind of weird, like ‘This just doesn’t feel right,’” Green said with a laugh.

“You go from playing 30 minutes a game to zero minutes—it felt awkward, we couldn’t do anything to help our team,” Tanksley said. “We weren’t as used to that.”

Their arrival sped up the rebuilding timetable for a program that had just bottomed out, and Green and Tanksley bore those heightened expectations the moment they stepped on to the court in November 2014.

“They knew they were going to have to be the guys right away,” Mihalich said. “You've got to want to be that guy. And they did. You’ve got to want to be the star. And they did.”

It has not always been easy. Green acknowledges he was prone to defensive breakdowns last season, when both players had to navigate the fine line created by being the best players on the team yet not the ones with the most experience in the program.

“I would say stay in the gym a little bit more, work on the things that I was bad at—defense, building my shot, creating a shot for myself, just being more vocal,” Green said when asked what he’d say to his freshman year self. “I think being more vocal was the main thing. Prior to (this season), I wasn’t a vocal leader. I always led by example.”

Green and Tanksley have done both this season. Green (17.7 points and 7.1 assists per game) enters today 0.3 points per game behind Northeastern’s David Walker in the scoring race and more than two assists ahead of William & Mary’s David Cohn atop that leaderboard. Tanksley (15.8 points per game) ranks eighth in the league and has scored at least 10 points in 28 of 29 games.

Green has locked up CAA Player of the Year honors over the last several weeks, during which he’s drained game-winning shots in dramatic wins over Northeastern and Elon. He cemented himself as an all-timer at Hofstra on Thursday, when he scored the final eight points of the game as the Dutchmen completed an 18-point comeback in a stunning 70-69 win over UNC Wilmington. 

“We’ve come too far—we deserve to win it, coach deserves to win it,” Tanksley said “Each place with (Mihalich), we got better and better. At Niagara our last season, we won 19 games. Last year we won 20 games. This year we’ve got 20 already. So each year we made progress. I believe this year we learned how to finish.”

Now the task is to finish in memorable fashion, even if nobody involved wants their brief time at Hofstra to end. 

“You’ll never be in this small space again, where you can go have lunch with your friends, your teammates, go out with them, spend time with them, bond,” Tanksley said. “This is like a special time, where you can just feel it drifting away and you don’t want it to drift away.

“These last few weeks have been really emotional. We’re trying to fight it, just don’t want it to be over, you know? These games are coming so quick, practice is going by so quick, you just try and hold on to every little bit of it.”

Their coach is doing his best to slow time, too.

“I can’t believe how fast it’s gone,” Mihalich said. “It’s mixed emotions. You’re happy that we where we are—it’s the end of the year, we’re playing for first place—but I wish it was still November 15th and I wish these guys were freshmen. I wish we could start all over again.

“But you know what, we’re not the NBA. We get four years with these guys and then they move on.”

With four more wins in the next nine days, they’ll be moving up to the rafters.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Of serenity now, life at the front of the pack and tortured track analogies

This was totally me. Minus the smoking, and the hurdling, and the winning.

Back in my younger, svelter days, I ran high school track and cross country. I would like to tell you that it was because I was a natural, and that all the cool kids were doing it, and that it was a great way to meet girls.

But the truth is that while I came from a running family—my Dad ran several marathons and my sister was a terrific sprinter—my talent, such as it were, made me the Jeb Bush of the clan. All the cool kids were playing basketball or baseball, which I would have done too, were I good enough to play basketball or baseball at the varsity level. And girls weren’t turning out in droves for boring after school cross country or track meets to swoon at the guy finishing in the middle of the pack (he says, hoping none of his ex-teammates read this)

Still, I liked track and cross country. I enjoyed the camaraderie of being on a team. You wouldn’t believe how much trouble cross country runners could get into (no, really, you probably wouldn’t). It kept me in really good shape—I was proof that a mediocre runner can still outrun any non-runner in the high school—while also keeping me off the mean streets of Torrington (a funny sentence then, not so funny now, thanks death of suburbia).

Another thing I liked about track was the routine. Whether track or cross country, every meet was about repetition. I either ran around the track four times or eight times (I might have been a lot better at track had my coach listened to me about my real skills being in the 400 and 800 meters, but that’s a repressed memory to fully revisit when Molly begins running track), or took two turns around a course.

There were landmarks that identified how far along I was. At our home track, that was the gym at the first turn, the bleachers on the first straightaway, the shot put/discus pit at the second turn and the sight of race officials and cheering fans at the end of the second straightaway. If I didn’t like where I was at a certain checkpoint, of if I wasn’t where I expected I’d be, there were more laps to run and more opportunities to make up ground.

I thought of my track days earlier this month, not when I glanced at my ever-expanding waistline but when I recalled my reactions after the Flying Dutchmen basketball team suffered back-to-back losses to UNC Wilmington and James Madison in which it blew leads of 20 points and 14 points, respectively. 

Those losses felt like unrecoverable opportunities lost—especially the home loss to Wilmington, when Hofstra played for first place at home after Feb. 1 for the first time in the #CAAHoops era. The marketing department worked really hard trying to woo the ever-elitist student body and Nassau County sports fan to that game, and another agonizing loss seemed as if it would provide said students and fans all the excuses they needed to not show up the rest of the season.

The losses dropped the Dutchmen two games behind UNC Wilmington with six to play, and it honestly felt as if Hofstra was going to have to fight just to stay out of the outbracket games the first day of the CAA Tournament. My Tweets echoed this sentiment, and then some, to the point where I was bordering on nihilistic.

At some point, I realized how foolish I sounded, and I began pondering the myopia of fandom. A friend pointed out that it was hard, in an amusing way, to juxtapose my rants about a second-place team with the guy who used to annually come up with reasons why a low-seeded Hofstra squad could win a tournament in which the chalk almost always holds.

He was right, of course, but I suppose it’s unavoidable that heightened expectations yield a more visceral response. There’s no agony involved in building up expectations for a middle-of-the-pack team. But when the season begins with NCAA Tournament expectations? Every hiccup—and let’s be honest, those back-to-back blown leads against UNC Wilmington and James Madison WERE awfully big hiccups—is evidence things are going to go horribly wrong, as they always do for Hofstra fans. 

But it’s not really fair to expect players and coaches who are new to Hofstra to inherit our old wounds. Especially when they don’t even play or coach the sport that scarred us (if you didn’t think of the Flying Dutchmen lacrosse team and the 2006 NCAA Tournament quarterfinal game at some point during the UNC Wilmington-James Madison gauntlet, you’re either a damn liar, a better person than me or quite possibly both).

I also took a longer view of things after the consecutive losses, and realized what’s happened in three years. Hofstra has gone from being lapped in the CAA—in an embarrassing fashion that had nothing to do with the 14 league losses suffered in 2012-13—to, at the very least, helping set the pace in a damn good race. We needed to remember that. *I* needed to remember that.

So, for at least the third time this season, I decided to try and employ a calmer approach. And what do you know, that made last night—when the Dutchmen exacted some revenge by coming back from an 18-point first half deficit to stun UNC Wilmington, 70-69—even more enjoyable. There were no leaping off the ledge Tweets to justify, no coming back from declaring I’m done with this season.

Just two 40-something Hofstra grads, and their three-year-old daughter, watching in disbelief as Juan’ya Green went full-bore Charles Jenkins/Loren Stokes by scoring 15 points in the final 5:57 and ending the game on an 8-0 run before UNC Wilmington missed three open shots in the final five seconds.

The Dutchmen led the game for 49 seconds AND WON. It’s hard to compute that, when you’ve been through extended comebacks that fizzled when a reliable free throw shooter bricked two at the line and ****ing Frantz Massenat’s half-courter.

(True story: Molly began the rally with about three minutes left by standing on the couch and yelling “GO HOFSTRA! YOU CAN DO THIS!” She can be rented out for sporting events in exchange for a full scholarship beginning in the fall of 2030)

The Dutchmen’s fifth straight win put them in a tie for first place with UNC Wilmington and set up another first-time-ever proposition tomorrow: A mere 23 days after they hosted the program’s first post-Feb. 1 game with first-place CAA implications, the Dutchmen can clinch a regular season crown at home. (Basically, as long as Hofstra wins, it’s the no. 1 seed, but for the full rundown of potential tiebreaker weirdness, read this)

After all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, the Dutchmen made up the ground they lost earlier this month, got back to where they were expected to be during the season’s final straightaway and received another chance to get the community to actually show up for a game. 

None of this new-found serenity erases my worries over next weekend in Baltimore—or even tomorrow in Hempstead, where a tired team will be hosting a Charleston squad that won the first matchup of the season in the shadow of the future home of the CAA Tournament (snort).

Quite frankly, while I don’t doubt the Dutchmen have the best starting five in the league, I’m not sure they can win three games in three days, especially in this Kardiac Kids fashion. Of the last five wins, two were won when the opponent missed a game-winning shot at the buzzer, two others were within one possession in the final minute and the other involved Hofstra blowing a double-digit lead against Delaware.

To win the title—and drag out the track analogy one more time—the Dutchmen will have to win the final event, the 4x400 relay, with four (OK, five) guys who have already competed in the maximum amount of events. There’s a chance we’re sitting here 10 days from now, agonizing again over yet another terrible thing that has happened to us. #Hyperbole

But let’s not worry about what might happen. Let’s enjoy what’s happening, and the view from the front of the pack at the end of a race, instead of the back.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

I know why I go to extremes

About Hofstra fandom, and perhaps the frequency with which this blog is updated.

A friend who shall remain nameless so that he doesn’t have to acknowledge knowing me popped up in Facebook chat recently wanting to talk Hofstra basketball.

“You’ve treated this season just like I did the Mets,” he wrote.

(PS: Yes. I shoveled out of a blizzard last weekend and found my blog)

He’s right. I was determined, after listening to this friend caterwaul from the beginning of the summer all the way to the last game of the World Series about how awful Terry Collins was and how he was going to screw the Mets and how doomed they all were, that I would not follow in his footsteps.

I told him, and the handful of other people in the biz who are actually aware that Hofstra plays Division I basketball, that I would approach this season of heightened expectations with optimism and eagerness instead of pessimism and fatalism. I was going to enjoy the ride, regardless of the eventual destination.

If the Flying Dutchmen did what the prognosticators expected them to—win the CAA for the first time and head to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001—I didn’t want to look back and realize I spent most of the trip in the backseat barking about traffic and how we were going the wrong way and how we’d never get there, only to find out we got there in terrifically memorable fashion. 

That philosophy lasted 10 days, or about as long as most of the New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made. Ameen Tanksley’s missed buzzer-beater in a 67-66 loss to Indiana State — in which the Dutchmen trailed by 17 in the second half only to blow a seven-point lead in the final two minutes—triggered the release of all the painful memories I’d repressed through months of quack therapy.

My thoughts were now dominated by the blown nine-point lead against William & Mary and all those missed free throws before Daniel Dixon’s wide-open 3 and Tony Skinn’s punch to the nuts and the blown lead in the second half of the NIT quarterfinal against Old Dominion and Greg Johnson driving for two (AND MISSING) when the Dutchmen were down three against George Mason and Antoine Agudio missing a free throw that would have iced an eventual two-overtime loss to George Mason in January 2008 and Charles Jenkins getting drafted by the Warriors but traded before they became the most dominant NBA champions since the dynasty-era Bulls. 

And that’s just the men’s basketball misery. 

For the next two months I rode the emotional rollercoaster, not only from game to game but sometimes possession to possession. I not only reneged on my promise to my friend, but I behaved worse than he did. I clouded any good moment by craning my neck to the sky to see if it was falling. Any less-than-perfect moment WAS the sky falling. I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, but I play one on game day. 

But here’s the crazy thing about conditioning yourself to expect the worst: You also possess the acute awareness required to absorb the moment when things are going better than expected. Like right now. 

The Dutchmen are in the midst of a four-game winning streak and producing the type of victories we rarely get to enjoy. There was the 96-92 triple-overtime win over Northeastern (actually, Hofstra is 3-0 all-time in triple overtime games, so we always get to enjoy triple overtime games!) in which the Dutchmen didn’t trail over the final 37-plus minutes of regulation and missed potential game-winning shots at the end of regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime.

The Dutchmen got revenge for last March’s agonizing loss to William & Mary by trouncing the Tribe 91-63 three days later. But in true hexed Hofstra fashion, that win was overshadowed by the season- and career-ending knee injury suffered by Malik Nichols, which turned a thin seven-man rotation into a six-man rotation with all the depth of onion typing paper (GOOGLE IT CRAIN).

Without Nichols, the Dutchmen grinded out narrow wins over Elon (in which the Dutchmen led by 13 in the second half and fell behind in the final minute before Juan’ya Green drained the game-winning shot with 2.7 seconds left) and Drexel (in which the Dutchmen trailed three-win Drexel by 13 in the second half).

The Dutchmen of last season—or two months ago—might not have gone any better than 1-3 in that stretch. Perhaps this team of experienced players who have not played all that often together—the starting five has combined for just nine seasons at Hofstra—is beginning to gel and develop the chemistry, especially of the end-game variety, that often seemed to be missing for their first 15 months together.

And perhaps this is turning into the season we’ve been waiting for since 2005-06. The similarities to 10 years ago are growing downright eerie.

As a do-everything point guard wearing no. 1, Green is doing a fine Loren Stokes impersonation. In Denton Koon, the Dutchmen have a 6-foot-8 matchup-creating nightmare who can play anywhere on the court, a la Aurimas Kieza. And in the beastly Rokas Gustys—he gets double-doubles on days of the week that end in -y—Hofstra has a big man who is a finished product, a la Adrian Uter, and not a lottery ticket.

Now, like then, every CAA game was an epic battle in which mere survival, not style points, was the objective, especially with a team that relies heavily on its starters. This year’s Dutchmen have outscored CAA opponents by an average of 7.9 points per game. The Dutchmen of a decade ago outscored CAA opponents by an average of 5.4 points in 18 regular season games.

The 2005-06 team received 89.9 percent of its scoring and 80.3 percent of its minutes from the quintet of Stokes, Kieza, Uter, Carlos Rivera and Antoine Agudio. This year’s starting five—Green, Koon, Gustys, Tanksley and Brian Bernardi—are accounting for 88.4 percent of the scoring and 83.3 percent of the minutes thus far.

One thing the 2005-06 team never did was host a late-season game with first place implications. But the Dutchmen will do that tonight, when UNCW—seeking its first championship since 2005-06—visits in a battle of CAA co-leaders. It will be the first time the Dutchmen have hosted a game with first place on the line after February 1 since 2000, when Hofstra, led by now-assistant coach Speedy Claxton, came from behind to beat Maine 67-64 and clinch the no. 1 seed in the America East tournament. 

As fun as it is to finally harbor legitimate NCAA Tournament dreams for the Flying Dutchmen, it’s even better that their revival is symbolic of the athletic program as a whole.

On Friday night, the Flying Dutchwomen host James Madison with at least a share of first place in the CAA on the line. The Dutchwomen and Drexel are each 7-2, a half-game behind 7-1 James Madison. It is the first time in the Defiantly Dutch era—going way back to aught ’93-94—that the women’s basketball team is playing a post-Feb. 1 home game with first-place implications.

These back-to-back first-place battles come after a fall season in which both soccer teams advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament while the volleyball team earned a share of the CAA’s regular season crown. I have never been someone who measures the success of Hofstra athletics by conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, but such a school year is especially gratifying after a 2013-14 in which no team won a conference championship (the only title-less academic year of the post-ECC era) and only the softball team advanced to the NCAAs.

That blip on the radar seemed to be so much more coming at the end of a ruinous five-year period that shook our faith in a way we didn’t think possible. Remember when the Dutchmen going 27-70 from 2011-12 through 2013-14 didn’t even get the bronze medal in the Olympics of misery?

It’s a good thing we wavered but didn’t topple, for these are the good ol’ days. This season, with its “where were you when…” moments and the emotional investment that lends itself to such varied mood swings, is what we signed up for when fate and destiny determined our fandom.

There are likely to be more extremes ahead of us. Six-man rotations, inconsistent free throw shooting and a CAA as good as it was 10 years ago will keep us up for the next four weeks leading into the tournament in Baltimore (better be there, it’s the last time the CAA will ever allow it to be within driving distance of the America East five—sorry had to get that in there). There are many more miles left to drive (not as many as between here and Charleston, but a lot) and plenty of opportunities to declare we’re hopelessly lost and that we’re getting out right here and hitchhiking home.

In the end, maybe this isn’t going to turn out like the Mets season. Maybe there will be no equivalent of a Game 5 win over the Dodgers or a four-game sweep of the Cubs or flirtation with the biggest prize of all.

But maybe there will, beginning tonight.