Wednesday, March 16, 2016

And so it goes

The mistake was thinking things would get better after last Monday night. In the interests an easier chronological narrative, let’s start there.

For 30-odd minutes of basketball, we thought we were going to seize our last chance, for at least three more years, to celebrate a conference championship in person with fellow Hofstra fans. They arrived by the car and busload all day, spanning the spectrum from teenagers to senior citizens, all there in hopes of sharing one of the greatest moments in the history of the school’s athletic program. 

The Flying Dutchmen were going to win and the tears, which threatened to spring forth all day long at the mere thought of the post-buzzer emotions, would flow. There would be hugging, there would be screaming, there would be championship T-shirts bought, there would FINALLY be The Payoff.

Except, of course, there were no tears, just detached resignation after Juan’ya Green had the worst game of his life at the worst possible time and Denton Koon lost his cool at the worst possible time (unlike 10 years ago, there was a referee there to see it #ThatsSoHofstra) and the Flying Dutchmen blew a 12-point second half lead and fell to UNC Wilmington, 80-73, in overtime of the CAA championship game.

It was over before we knew it’d begun. The overtime buzzer hadn’t even sounded yet when fans and friends began filing out. Goodbyes were hurried, hasty fist bumps replaced handshakes and there was a miserable procession of cars and busses traveling north on I-95.

They were the lucky ones. I stuck around for a bit and got to see what happened to the 2016 CAA CHAMPIONS HOFSTRA cardboard banner (the HOFSTRA was scraped off in a side room beneath Royal Farms Arena, which makes Nassau Coliseum—the current deconstructed Nassau Coliseum—look like a freaking palace). I wished I’d seen what happened to the Hofstra championship T-shirts, before they were shipped off to clothe some kids who have no idea what true misery—a 5,485-day NCAA Tournament drought—feels like.

I saw Jeff Hathaway, a veteran of more than a dozen national championships in basketball, walk around the bowels of Royal Farms Arena with a zombified expression. I saw Joe Mihalich apologizing to anyone he saw wearing a Hofstra button—seriously, apologizing, what does he have to apologize for—before he ducked into another side room to avoid the sight of celebrating UNC Wilmington players headed for the interview room. Oh, and then two players sporting UNC Wilmington championship T-shirts ducked into said room for some water, and Mihalich had to twist around to avoid eye contact.

I fielded a lot of sympathetic/frustrated texts and phone calls. The funniest one was from my friend Rob, who wrote “That was a worse ending than Lost.”

The most poignant one was from my Dad. “Man, I am just heartbroken for you,” said a man who was never prone to hyperbole (the apple fell a few miles from the tree) even before he suffered the loss of his wife seven years ago this month.

Then there was this series of texts from my wife:

How much more of this do I have to endure?

Get out here now. (angry emoji)

Kevin Keatts just stopped to tickle Molly, Get me out of here!

That really happened, by the way. The victorious coach was apparently greeting UNCW fans along the 100 level of the arena when he saw Molly, who was wearing a nondenominational lime green CAA T-shirt. Because she is breathtakingly cute (DAD BIAS), he reached down to tickle her—and then saw my forlorn looking wife, wearing a Hofstra T-shirt.

She apparently gave him what is known in the family as the “Leavitt look”—a mixture of incredulousness and disgust known to send me and anyone else who receives it (who am I kidding, I’m the only one that receives it) into begging-for-forgiveness mode.

Keatts stood up straight and nodded at my wife. “I hope you have a good night,” he said with a sincere tone. So he’s OK in my book, and my wife admitted she wished she could have mustered something other than silent fury at the NCAA-bound head coach.

I finally made my way to my wife and Molly. A security guard asked us if we wanted a court pass. Umm, how about no?

And then I got in the car, where I was greeted by the Billy Joel song you saw at the very top. And THEN I had to drive home, where we didn’t arrive until 3:30. But I at least saw Speedy Claxton at a rest stop on I-95.

So yeah. Even though reality didn’t really begin to settle in until Tuesday—we blew a 12-point lead and Juan’ya Green shot 2-for-16 and Denton Koon drew a technical foul with less than seven minutes left, are you kidding me?—I figured the worst was over. This would sting forever, like so many other wounds absorbed over the last 23 seasons, and then we’d move on, rediscover our optimism and get ready to get our spirits crushed again next year.

And that will still happen. After we stop being pissed off over the latest wound we’ve absorbed: What happened to the Dutchmen on Sunday.

This isn’t about being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament—not directly, anyway. The Dutchmen were never getting into the tournament. I just wrote that open letter to vent a little bit and to point out what a joke it was that they weren’t at least being discussed as a bubble team.

But I was never daydreaming about an NCAA game this week. I was daydreaming about what kind of draw the Dutchmen would get in the NIT, and if it would assure them a second home game as long as they won the first.

Except, of course, the selection committee screwed Hofstra, which opens up the NIT tonight as the fifth seed in the Monmouth region (I called that one) against fourth-seeded George Washington. Getting screwed by the NIT selection committee is not a new one, but it’s still as embarrassing as getting beat up by Martin Prince. (I already used a Milhouse analogy last year with the softball committee—should have known it would have been topped)

By any reasonable measure, Hofstra deserved no worse than a fourth seed and a first-round home game. Our friend John Templon, a very reasonable, numbers-oriented man, had Hofstra as a three seed. But he’s not a crook, so he was wrong. 

The Dutchmen were seeded fifth (which puts them on the 17 through 20 seed line) despite having the eighth-highest RPI in the field of 32. Amazingly, they were not the most screwed team in the field. That “honor,” such as it is, would go to Akron, which finished 34th in the RPI but drew a six seed and a game last nighit at Ohio State (the Zips got zip by losing in overtime), or Princeton, which finished 39th in the RPI and also drew a six seed and with it a visit tonight to Virginia Tech.

The Dutchmen also had the sixth-highest RPI among the 15 teams that advanced to the NIT via the automatic bid. The CAA was the highest-ranked conference to yield an NIT automatic bid this year, and the highest-rated mid-major conference to do so since 2006, when the NIT went to a seeding system, supposedly to make it more like a real tournament and less like a celebration of good ol’ boy cronyism.  

(Again, Akron got even more screwed. The Mid-American Conference was the 10th-ranked league this year)

The highest-ranked conference to yield an automatic bid since 2006 was the Missouri Valley, which ranked 11th when Missouri State drew a third seed in 2011.

The Dutchmen only drew a fifth seed despite beating a no. 1 seed. St. Bonaventure, on the road and a no. 4 seed, Florida State, at a neutral site. St. Bonaventure at least deserved a no. 1 seed. But Florida State finished TWENTY-SEVEN SPOTS LOWER than Hofstra in the RPI!

Look, I realize this is a fruitless endeavor, and that the war has already been lost when you are debating seeds in the NIT. The Dutchmen didn’t get where they wanted to go this year. A 1 seed wouldn’t have changed that reality.

But the niche nature of the argument doesn’t diminish the fact this was a massive failure at every level, from the top on down. We know the fat cats aren’t going to go out of their way to help the little guys, and will in fact go out of their way to knock us further down.

But isn’t that where the commissioner of the damn league, or our own athletic director, is supposed to step in and perform some advocacy? Isn’t it tougher to get away with this if Tom Yeager is pushing for #2Bids4CAA all season, instead of remaining inexplicably silent while his league produces its highest finish ever? (And maybe then his champion gets better than a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the same seed given to leagues that finished the season 15th, 19th and 23rd in RPI, respectively)

And Jeff Hathaway has fought bigger fights than this. Why did Hofstra end up on the canvas here?

We’re demanding answers, even with the knowledge we’ll never get them. Because as bad as last Monday night was, it was easily explained away as sports being sports, the type of thing that happens in games played by human beings.

That this is just another example of sports being sports, an entirely different type of things that happens in entirely different types of games played by human beings, is far more infuriating, and far less excusable. 

Just The Facts: Automatic bid winners in the NIT

Murray Williams from my hometown sends the ball skyward as UConn wins the 1988 NIT. Hey Hofstra, replace this as my favorite NIT moment.

Good afternoon and welcome to the first-ever Just The Facts: NIT edition. It’s not what we want, but hey, at least it’s not the goddamn CBI.

With fifth-seeded Hofstra beginning (and hopefully not ending) NIT play tonight at  fourth-seeded George Washington (the absurdness of this will be written about later), I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at how teams that received an automatic bid into the NIT have fared since 2006, when the NCAA took over the tournament and made a flawed thing a million times worse.

Short version: The Flying Dutchmen are going to have to make history if they want to ride our anger train, and the god forsaken LIRR, all the way to Madison Square Garden.

Automatic bid entrants are just 34-95 in the NIT in the last 10 seasons. Only one automatic bid winner has ever made it to the final four—and that was BCS school Washington, which was a 1 seed after winning the Pac-12 regular season title in 2012. (A BCS school having to settle for an NIT auto bid. Cats and dogs, mass hysteria!)

While no mid-major automatic bid winner has ever reached the NIT final four, nine have reached the quarterfinals, including two in each of the last two seasons and three in 2012. 

The Dutchmen need two wins to tie the school record for victories in a single season and three to set a new mark. I told myself I wouldn’t get excited about this damnit. 

Anyway, here is the raw data. All automatic bids went 0-1 in the NIT unless otherwise noted.

2015 (seed/league)
Louisiana Tech (3/C-USA) 2-1
Murray State (3/Ohio Valley) 2-1
South Dakota State (8/Summit) 1-1
Iona (6/MAAC)
Central Michigan (6/MAC)
William & Mary (7/CAA)
UC Davis 7(/Big West)
Montana (7/Big Sky) 
North Carolina Central (7/MEAC)
Bucknell (8/Patriot)
Charleston Southern (8/Big South)
St. Francis (8/NEC)
TOTAL: 5-12, two teams to QFs

2014 (seed/league)
Louisiana Tech (3/C-USA) 2-1
Belmont (5/Ohio Valley) 2-1
Robert Morris (8/Northeast) 1-1
Green Bay (4/Horizon)
Iona (6/MAAC)
Georgia State (6/Sun Belt)
Boston U. (7/Patriot)
Davidson (7/Southern)
Utah Valley 7/(WAC)
Vermont (7/America East)
UC Irvine (8/Big West)
Florida Gulf Coast (8/Atlantic Sun)
High Point (8/Big South)
TOTAL: 5-13, two teams to QFs

2013 (seed/league)
Louisiana Tech 5/(WAC) 51/13th league 1-1
Mercer (7/Atlantic Sun) 1-1
Robert Morris (8/Northeast) 1-1
Stony Brook (7/America East) 1-1
Stephen F. Austin (5/Southland)
Long Beach State (7/Big West)
Niagara (7/MAAC)
Northeastern (8/CAA)
Charleston Southern (8/Big South)
Norfolk State (8/MEAC)
TOTAL: 4-10, no teams to QFs

2012 (seed/league)
Washington (1/Pac-12) 3-1
Drexel (3/CAA) 2-1
Middle Tennessee State (4/Sun Belt) 2-1
Nevada (5/WAC) 2-1
Bucknell (8/Patriot) 1-1
Oral Roberts (4/Summit)
Akron (5/MAC)
Valparaiso (7/Horizon)
Savannah State (8/MEAC)
Stony Brook (8/America East)
UT-Arlington (8/Southland)
TOTAL: 10-11, four teams to QFs, one to SFs

2011 (seed/league)
Charleston (6/Southern) 2-1
Kent State (7/MAC) 2-1
Missouri State (3/Missouri Valley) 1-1
Fairfield (6/MAAC) 1-1
St. Mary’s (2/West Coast)
Milwaukee (5/Horizon)
Murray State (6/Ohio Valley)
Florida Atlantic (7/Sun Belt)
Long Beach State (7/Big West)
Vermont (7/America East)
Bethune-Cookman (8/MEAC)
Coastal Carolina (8/Big South)
McNeese State (8/Southland)
Texas Southern (8/SWAC)
TOTAL: 6-14, two teams to QFs

2010 (seed/league)
Kent State (4/MAC) 1-1
Jacksonville (8/Atlantic Sun) 1-1
Coastal Carolina (7/Big South)
Troy (7/Sun Belt)
Weber State (7/Big Sky)
Jackson State (8/SWAC)
Quinnipiac (8/NEC)
Stony Brook (8/America East)
TOTAL: 2-8, no teams to QFs

2009 (seed/league)
Davidson (6/Southern) 1-1
Bowling Green (8/MAC)
Jacksonville (8/Atlantic Sun)
Tennessee-Martin (8/Ohio Valley)
Weber State (8/Big Sky)
TOTAL: 1-5, no teams to QFs

2008 (seed/league)
UC Santa Barbara (7/Big West)
Stephen F. Austin (7/Southland)
Utah State (7/WAC)
Alabama State (8/SWAC)
Morgan State (8/MEAC)
UNC-Asheville (8/Big South)
Robert Morris (8/NEC)
TOTAL: 0-8, no teams to QFs

2007 (seed/league)
Marist (7/MAAC) 1-1
South Alabama (7/Sun Belt)
Toledo (7/MAC)
Vermont (7/America East)
Austin Peay (8/Ohio Valley
Delaware State (8/MEAC)
East Tennessee State (8/Atlantic Sun)
Mississippi Valley State (8/SWAC)
TOTAL: 1-8, no teams to QFs

2006 (seed/league)***
Manhattan (9/MAAC) 2-1
Delaware State (10/MEAC) 1-1
Western Kentucky (6/Sun Belt)
Northern Arizona (9/Big Sky)
Fairleigh Dickinson (10/NEC)
Georgia Southern (10/Southern)
Lipscomb (10/Atlantic Sun)
TOTAL: 3-7, no teams to QFs
***This was the last year of the 40-team tournament and Manhattan reached the "second round" after winning outbracket and first round games

Sunday, March 13, 2016

An open letter to Jeff Hathaway

File photo of me.

Dear Jeff:

Good afternoon. It is with great trepidation that I sit down to write this letter to you. Not because I’m worried you won’t read or like its contents, but because the open letter is the laziest form of journalism/bloggery. It allows the writer to take the easy way out, because it erases the challenge of story construction while automatically giving him the lede and his conclusion, which are usually the hardest parts to figure out. It also speaks to the ego of the writer, who believes that what he has to say is so important that it warrants a bigger audience than just the intended recipient. 

Anyway. Now that my lede is out of the way, let’s get to why I’m writing you this open letter: Jeff, you need to do whatever you have to do today to get the Flying Dutchmen an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

I wish, almost as much as you do, that this letter was not necessary, that the Dutchmen had held on to a 12-point second half lead Monday night, beaten UNC Wilmington and won the CAA’s automatic bid. That would have allowed allowed you to spend the subsequent six days working the Selection Committee for a decent, travel-friendly draw and the rest of us to redden the skin on our arms from pinching it so often because we were in disbelief over our good fortune.

But as you have come to understand over the last four years, we aren’t allowed to enjoy nice things at Hofstra. And so most of us are spending this week wondering where we’ll be seeded in the NIT, and how the good ol’ boys on that selection committee will find a way to send us on the road to a Power 5 school on one day’s notice despite an RPI that suggests we should get a seed that comes with it at least one and maybe even two home games. (Also, we are reddening the skin on our arms from pinching it so often because we are in disbelief over our good fortune of avoiding the CBI)

I wrote “most of us” because there’s a segment of fans (plus one very loyal and very hard-working employee) pounding the pavement to get Hofstra considered for an at-large bid. I have tried avoiding this discussion, because getting into it requires reading the work of the major network bracketologist, which is the only American occupation lower than meter maid. And also, because as I have noted, we don’t get to enjoy good things, so why get my hopes up for an at-large bid that’s not coming?

Alas, as you know by the occasional glimpse at my Twitter feed, self-control isn’t one of my strengths. So here I am, jumping into the fray, and getting my hopes up only to end up blinded with rage.

It shouldn’t have come to this. You shouldn’t have to spend the final few days before Selection Sunday generating an at-large candidacy from scratch. Joe Mihalich, with other things on his mind a week ago Saturday, shouldn’t have had to stump for the CAA, the ninth-ranked league in the country, long before Hofstra fell into the at-large pool.

Why must the at-large train be driven by the coach, the athletic director, the SID and the fans, and not the league? The MAAC, the 19th-rated conference in the land, has a commissioner stumping for Monmouth at every opportunity.

It’s an amazing coincidence that the CAA’s leadership is quiet every time a non-Virginia school is jostling for an at-large bid. It happened in 2006, it happened in 2007, it happened in 2012 and it's happening again. I guess this year the leadership was too busy devising goodbye hashtags and ordering a pair of commemorative scissors. I bet you never had to worry about this in the Big East. 

But this is our lot in life, and so as an athletic director with experience on a selection committee, you can help ensure Hofstra an unusually happy ending. There’s more to getting this done than just numbers, as you no doubt know, but here they are, mostly in case anyone else stumbles across this. Here is Hofstra’s case, compared to Joe Lunardi’s “last four in” and “last four out” and the RPI numbers per Jerry Palm. (I need a shower now)

Hofstra (55 RPI) SOS 108 6-4 top 100 RPI, 10-0 201+

South Carolina (62) SOS 123 8-5 top 100 RPI, 7-1 201+
Temple (59) SOS 81 7-8 top 100 RPI, 13-1 201+
Monmouth (53) SOS 164 3-4 top 100 RPI, 16-3 201+
San Diego State (32) SOS 67 3-6 top 100 RPI, 5-1 201+

St. Mary’s (37) SOS 148 6-3 top 100 RPI, 18-0 201+
Michigan (56) SOS 50 4-11 top 100 RPI, 9-0 201+
Vanderbilt (63) SOS 36 7-10 top 100 RPI, 5-0 201+
Syracuse (70) SOS 42 8-10 top 100 RPI, 6-1 201+

So to review:
—Hofstra has a better RPI than five of the eight bubble teams
—Hofstra has a better SOS than three of the eight bubble teams
—Hofstra has a better record vs. the top 100 RPI than six of the eight bubble teams
—Hofstra is one of four bubble teams unbeaten vs. teams with an RPI lower than 201

I know a mid-50s RPI from a mid-major doesn’t usually elicit at-large consideration, but it is warranted in a year of abject parity/mediocrity amongst the big boys. And mid-majors pissing off the establishment and receiving an at-large bid is not unprecedented. Air Force did it in 2006 (trust me, we remember it). VCU did it in 2011 (trust me, we remember it), despite being so far off the bubble that the team supposedly didn’t even bother watching the selection show. 

So why are we not at least in the discussion? Maybe people feel sorry for us and don’t want to get our hopes up by touting Hofstra’s at-large candidacy. Maybe it’s something more sinister, some kind of Illuminati scheme by the bracketologists and the selection committee. Maybe—hopefully—it’s just sheer incompetence by the bracketologists, something that can be fixed by the selection committee.

Regardless. Unlike any of your predecessors in the athletic director’s office, you have the experience and ability of supplementing cold hard numbers with weathered fingers and sharpened elbows. You have been in the smoky meeting room, where you’ve massaged the backs of others and, when necessary, gotten down and dirty, in order to get what your school deserved.

(I don’t know if the meeting room is smoky. It feels like it should be)

Plus, and I can’t say this loudly enough or often enough, the selection committee OWES US.

You’ve been on the selection committee. You know their standard spin—teams are evaluated on numbers only, there is no consideration given to storylines, everyone’s hunkered down with no outside influences during the selection process—is a crock of crap. Everyone in that room today is going to remember Hofstra got screwed, in historic fashion, in 2006. There is a CAA athletic director, Northeastern’s Peter Roby, in that room. It’s time to get some payback for 2006. It’s time to right a wrong. 

“This league is the ninth-best league in the country,” Mihalich said following the CAA quarterfinals win over Drexel. “Not enough people know that. Not enough people know that. The ninth-best in the country. Who knows that? More people should know that.”

You know the people that should know that, Jeff. You can help us finally enjoy a nice thing at Hofstra. Get us into the NCAA Tournament today.

Cheers and regards,
Jerry Beach

P.S.: See you at the home NIT game.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young

Charles Jenkins. Greg Washington. Nathaniel Lester. Mike Moore. Brad Kelleher. David Imes. Mo Cassara.

If we’re being honest, the only time in life it’s probably acceptable to invest any sort of self-identity in a college sports team is those four or five or six years we’re actually in college. Those are the years where the players are our peers, in which we attend class with them, eat lunch next to them in the cafeteria and throw back beers with them at the bars near campus.

(True story: I did a feature on a Flying Dutchman basketball player, a guy who had an interesting career in the blue and gold, during the 1994-95 season. It was the boilerplate feel-good redemptive feature. He gave me some a good quote, something about resiliency and never giving up. I asked him where he got it. “On a table at McHebe’s,” he said.)

Osei Millar. Kenny Adeleke. Wendell Gibson. Justin Jones. Michael Radziejewski. Woody Souffrant.

Maybe, if we’re being generous, we can extend the limits of plausible acceptability to the first few years after college, when ex-classmates and former fellow bar crawlers are still playing for the school.

But after that? We’re rooting for laundry, worn by increasingly younger men with no connection to our tenure, or the memories, good and bad, that molded our emotional fandom. It should be about them, and how they play for each other, instead of how they play for us.

Gibran Washington. Kenny Harris. Ryan Johnson. Mantas Leonavicius. Zygis Sestakos. Mike Davis-Sabb.

But look, humanity is a weird condition. We fall in love with plots of land, and courses in a bulletin. Then we get on to campus and begin to feel an association with our surroundings.

Those are our buildings and our trees and our club offices and our nooks and crannies. If we’re really lucky, we fall in love in those buildings and club offices, and the alma mater becomes the foundation for a life to be shared together.

Dane Johnson. Greg Johnson. Darren Townes. Miklos Szabo. Cornelius Vines. Yves Jules.

And those are our teams we go to watch. The connection is immediate and unbreakable. It is “we,” when there is some semblance of ownership in the outcome, and will always remain “we,” even after the timeframe for one to be called a “young alumni” lapses and the campus undergoes a transformation that makes it unrecognizable from the one we grazed.

Middle age approaches and arrives, yet we still go to games and still speak in the first person plural. College sports makes us feel young again, brings us back, a couple hours at a time, to the days when we had impressive waistlines and wrinkle-free faces and could sketch a future on any canvas we wished.

Paul Bilbo. Roland Brown. Dwan McMillan. Stevie Mejia. Shemiye McLendon. Taran Buie. Matt Grogan.

Our emotional investment often reduces us to the type of illogical insanity at which we’d usually scoff, or worse. We watch and we believe we are out there, thinking we could somehow replicate or better how an athlete moves or reacts. We have a historical narrative into which we categorize their feats and struggles. It’s nuts, really.

Yet we will never feel as young as we do tonight, and we will embrace it. We will live vicariously through those on the floor as well as those young enough to still utter “we” without absorbing weird looks or stern lectures, all the while enjoying the perspective brought upon by our wizened nature. 

Daquan Brown. Jody Card. George Davis. Jordan Allen. Stephen Nwaukoni. Darren Payen. Chris Jenkins.

Do you remember what you were doing on the first Monday of March 2006? I was pulling all-nighters balancing a job and writing a book. I slept half the day. The best players on the team were juniors. There was an at-large bid waiting even in the event of a loss. There would be more nights like this, maybe as soon as the next season. 

I didn’t know the best player had a testicle twice the size of the other and that he spent the afternoon pissing blood. I didn’t know the most indispensable player was graduating. I didn’t know the game was rigged. 

Adam Savion. Dan Steinberg. Zeke Upshaw. Daryl Fowlkes. Eliel Gonzalez. Moussa Kone. Dion Nesmith.

We won’t make those mistakes today. We’ll know what this means, and how it feels. We’ll realize it’ll be over before it’s begun, and that we need to savor all the hours leading up to the two hours we’ve dreamed about for 10 years. We’ll remember how it feels, for however long it lasts and however long we need it to last.

Tonight Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley and Denton Koon and Brian Bernardi and Rokas Gustys and Desure Buie and Andre Walker and Justin Wright-Foreman and Malik Nichols and Joe Mihalich dance for themselves, and to enjoy what happens when talent intersects with a little bit of good fortune, and to grasp the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of the sport they play and coach. Tonight is about them, and their chance to ensure they are remembered for as long as sports are played at Hofstra University.

Tom Pecora. Antoine Agudio. Carlos Rivera. Adrian Uter. Aurimas Kieza. Loren Stokes.

But they will dance for the rest of us too, those who preceded them on the court the previous 15 seasons as well as those for whom Hofstra sports has always been about the “we.” Tonight, they will dance for the desperate and the broken-hearted.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

And now we’re back where we started

Changing it up from Billy Joel better not be bad luck.

Does it really matter who the Flying Dutchmen play in the CAA semifinals, as long as they got there? Would we fail to feel anticipation following Saturday’s 80-67 win over Drexel if it advanced the Dutchmen to play James Madison, or Delaware, or Elon or five guys recruited from the gym at the local Y?

Of course not. We’d be busting with nervous energy this morning and afternoon, and salivating at the opportunity to watch the Dutchmen play for a berth in the CAA championship game.

“I just said to our guys in the locker room: Doesn’t matter who we play. It’s going to be a really good team,” Joe Mihalich said Saturday afternoon.

But playing William & Mary with a trip to the title game at stake? Would we want it any other way?

I don’t normally take it upon myself to speak for a large group of people, but the Hofstra fanbase is not that large so I feel confident in declaring that we all, at some point in each of the last 363 days, have thought about the 92-91 double overtime loss to William & Mary in last year’s semifinals.

Maybe it popped to mind while watching someone else’s agony. Like, wow, Carolin Panthers fans must really be in hell right now, but I bet the temperature in their hell is a little bit cooler than the temperature in ours.

Or maybe it came up in everyday conversation, like, well, this meeting blows, but it doesn’t blow as much as losing a conference tournament game in double overtime on a buzzer-beater.

Or maybe the thought just popped to your mind to remind you it was there, like how chewing food a certain way reminds you of a cavity you haven’t gotten filled or how stepping or reaching a certain way elicits a pain in a creaky joint. The pain is always there, even when you don’t think it’s there.

But now there’s a chance to fill the cavity, fix the joints, erase the pain (well, mostly). William & Mary rode a dominant first half to a 79-64 win over James Madison to set up The Rematch. Or is it The Sequel?

Regardless, the first of two The Rematches/The Sequels—just like a year ago, UNC Wilmington and Northeastern will battle in the second semifinal—provides the kind of redemptive opportunity for us (oh, and the Dutchmen too) that normally only comes from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter. 

To get where the Dutchmen want to go, they have to vanquish the demons from where they once resided. Will they be the #CAAHoops version of the 2004 Boston Red Sox, redeeming themselves for a 2003 ALCS collapse against the New York Yankees by knocking off the Yankees? Or will it end with even more agony and angst, a la the Buffalo Bills dropping a second straight Super Bowl to the Dallas Cowboys in January 1994?

This storyline is not a one-way narrative. The Tribe fell short of the ultimate goal last year, when it lost in the championship game for the second straight season and the fourth time since 2008, and its fans are thirsting to experience their first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

William & Mary was also swept this season by Hofstra, which handed the Tribe its most convincing loss of the season in a 91-63 rout in Hempstead on Jan. 24. So the Dutchmen won’t be the only ones looking for some revenge today.

“Who do we play tomorrow?” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said with an impish grin. “They’re the big boys in the league right now. We played them twice this year and they whipped us twice.”

One side will be euphoric, and inhaling as much oxygen as possible to prepare for the climb up one final mountain. One side will be devastated, having expected a leap of faith to end with a perfect landing only to fall once again into a bottomless abyss. 

“Really looking forward to it,” Shaver said.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Upon approaching the corner of Sadness and Euphoria

The year I barely updated my blog but always did so with a Billy Joel video.

If there’s one thing I’ve proven over seven-plus years at this sporadically updated blog, it’s that I’m not the most punctual dude on the planet. So as I post this, 10 hours before the Flying Dutchmen tip off CAA Tournament play by battling ninth-seeded Drexel in a quarterfinal here in Baltimore, less to advise you to savor the experience and more in hopes that you’ve already done so.

I hope you savored the week-long anticipation that comes with being the no. 1 seed—the nervousness, the excitement that comes with knowing championship dreams won’t require a Hollywood screenwriter, the idle thoughts about how the Dutchmen will end up the last team standing Monday night. And sure, the occasional panicked thought about how easily the CAA’s top seed could fall to 32-2 all-time in its opening game

I hope you savored the wild fashion in which the Dutchmen clinched the no. 1 seed despite spending a grand total of zero days alone in first place. In a span of less than 48 hours last week, they mounted a comeback from an 18-point deficit to stun UNC Wilmington, who would have clinched the top seed with a win, before beating College of Charleston.

With less than six minutes left in the latter game, we learned the Dutchmen could officially clinch the top seed at home when Northeastern hung on to beat Drexel 61-59. Had Drexel won—and Tavon Allen missed a 3-pointer shot at the buzzer—it would have created the mother of all tiebreaker traffic jams, one that wouldn’t have been broken until the next day’s RPI determined whether the Dutchmen or UNC Wilmington would be the no. 1 seed. As it turns out, Hofstra would have won that tiebreaker, but could you blame us for thinking something would have gone haywire with the computers overnight?

I know I’ll always remember yelling Northeastern-Drexel scores at Jeff Hathaway, who was seated a few rows in front of me, and experiencing the clincher with my wife, Sully Ray and my college roommate, John. We all stormed the court after the America East championship game wins and it was pretty special to take in the next on-campus clincher with our kids in tow.

I hope you were able to see and savor the postgame press conference, when the entire Dutchmen team filed into the room and Joe Mihalich teared up twice talking about Senior Day and the roles Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley played in the rapid rebuilding of the program. I’m pretty sure Hathaway—who has been to the very top of the basketball world 14 times with the University of Connecticut men’s and women’s teams—choked up too in an impromptu address of his own.

“I just want to step in and say this day, this win, is about everybody that’s ever worn Hofstra Pride in the men’s basketball program,” Hathaway said. “This is about the ’76 team, the ’77 team, the ’00 team, the ’01 team.”

I hope you savored the view from here, and took a glance in the rear-view mirror and saw the 2012 CAA Tournament, when the Dutchmen suffered the most lopsided loss in tourney history, and the 2013 CAA Tournament, which provided the period on the most painful season in program history. 

“What would you have said three years ago if I said we’d be here and Hofstra would be the number one seed?” my wife asked last night. I think I said something about random drug testing.

I hope you also saw the objects closest in the rear view mirror. This was a regular season unlike any other (of course, I suppose you can say that about ANY regular season), one which began with heightened expectations and a renewed vow to employ serenity now. Except of course I spent a bulk of the season going all Frank Costanza. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll own it. 

I hope you savored the final few steps in a path that began 52 weeks ago with the double-overtime loss to William & Mary, and once again brought us to the corner of sadness and euphoria.

I don’t know what the end result will be (shocking, I know). I still worry over how a team that really only goes six-deep can win three games in three days. Whatever happens, we will either exit this weekend and crawl into another off-season that will feel impossibly long and uphill, or experience an exhilaration 15 years in the making.

“You knew it was going to be a long wait,” Mihalich said this week. “You knew it was going to be a long offseason. But it’s what we sign up for.”

It’s what we sign up for, too.