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.

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