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.

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