Saturday, January 7, 2017

Going down the only roads we've ever known

History continued to repeat itself Thursday night, when the Flying Dutchmen authored perhaps the worst performance of the Joe Mihalich Era in a 62-54 loss to James Madison at the Arena. What this familiar defeat lacked in sudden misery — though if Dixon were a member of the Dukes, he probably would have hit a 10-pointer at the buzzer to account for the final score — it had in vague feelings of impending, nearing-the-precipice doom. 

The loss Monday was the third true buzzer-beating defeat of the Defiantly Dutch Era. (A stunningly low number, no?) The first two — in 1995-96 and 2012-13 — yielded season-crushing collapses, though “cause and effect” can really only be argued with the first one.

Jay Wright’s second team had won four of its last five to improve to 7-7 overall and 4-4 in the North Atlantic Conference (that name will stick, I’m sure of it) when Northeastern handed the Flying Dutchmen (that name will stick, I’m sure of it) a 71-68 loss. That defeat began a nine-game losing streak for the Dutchmen and a season-ending stretch in which they lost 11 of the final 13 games I covered as a collegian.

Seventeen years later, the Dutchmen were going nowhere long before Frantz Massenat’s half-courter through a double team gave Drexel a 55-52 win. That expulsion-ravaged team was already 5-13 overall and had already endured an eight-game losing streak. But still, any flicker of hope the Dutchmen had at 2-3 entering the Drexel game disappeared as they went 2-12 the rest of the way.

A possible hangover from Monday was on my mind most of the day Thursday — and clearly on the minds of the Dutchmen, who lacked any confidence or urgency aside from reserves Justin Wright-Foreman, Jamall Robinson and Hunter Sabety. The Dutchmen were at a plus-6 when those three were on the court together and minus-14 the rest of the time.

The fog with which the Dutchmen played reminded me of the nadirs of Tom Pecora’s final two seasons at the helm. The loss Thursday was a particularly timely reminder of the first week of January 2009, when the Dutchmen trailed Drexel wire-to-wire in a 63-56 loss on Jan. 3 before going to Boston and getting throttled by Northeastern, 73-50, two days later.

Not a single Dutchmen scored in double figures in the latter game — the first and only time it happened in Pecora’s head coaching tenure. On Thursday — exactly eight years later — the Dutchmen were limited to one player in double figures (who else but Wright-Foreman) for the first time since Jan. 2, 2014, early in Mihalich’s first season.

Against Northeastern, Pecora opened most timeouts by huddling with his assistants, away from players, as if he had no idea what to tell them. That game ended with a spate of backups, including walk-on David Vallins, on the court. 

On Thursday, Mihalich stalked to half court with his hands covering his face before a timeout in the second half. He spent much of the final 20 minutes walking up and down the bench, looking for answers that weren’t there. And while he didn’t dip into the walk-ons for the final moments Thursday, he did deviate from his script by subbing in Wright-Foreman, Robinson and Sabety far earlier in the second half than usual. 

The Northeastern loss represented the start of the worst slump ever experienced by then-sophomore Charles Jenkins, whose 1-of-9 effort against the Huskies began a five-game stretch in which he was just 13-of-59 from the field. I have been thinking of the struggling Jenkins while watching Rokas Gustys — who made more free throws (two) than field goals (one) against James Madison — scuffle for touches over the last three games, during which he’s 5-of-13.

The loss to Northeastern dropped the Dutchmen to 1-2 in the CAA — the same record the Dutchmen have through three games this season. Eight years ago today, the Dutchmen briefly stopped the skid with a 66-61 win over Delaware in which Jenkins shot 4-of-24 (!!!), though they lost the next two games (to VCU and Drexel) to fall to 2-4 in league play. 

The Dutchmen began turning their season around Jan. 17 by upsetting previously unbeaten Northeastern at the Arena. They ended up winning nine of their final 12 CAA games and missed out on a top-four seed and a bye by a tiebreaker. 

At this point, with the Dutchmen beginning a three-game road trip today at defensively dominant Charleston before heading to Elon and defending champion UNC Wilmington, they’d gladly take a 2-4 record heading into a two-game homestand that begins Jan. 19. The second game in a two-game homestand two weeks from now? Currently unbeaten Northeastern. 

And if bottoming out for the Dutchmen doesn’t occur at 2-4? That would be reminiscent of 2010, when a team lacking any four-year seniors missed a chance to open CAA play at 2-0 when it led all game before falling to William & Mary, 48-47, on what I can only presume was a 55-footer at the buzzer by junior Daniel Dixon. 

The Dutchmen were 2-2 after four games before a five-game losing streak in which they were outscored by a whopping 62 points and had the score run up on them by Jaime Larranaga. (Good times!!!!) That funk had everything: Lineup changes by Pecora, our guy Corny Vines getting tossed out of practice and even Pecora showing up to a press conference sans players and questioning their effort following the George Mason debacle. 

“I’m not into feeling sorry for myself, I’m not into feeling sorry for them,” Pecora said. “They’ve got scholarships here. It’s $50,000 a year to come be a college basketball player. It’s a wonderful life. And you’re asked to play hard when you get on the floor, work hard in the classroom and behave like a gentleman when you’re off the court. It’s not that much to do. There’s guys who would give their left arm to do that.”

Mihalich was accompanied by Wright-Foreman on Thursday, when the head coach criticized or referenced the Dutchmen’s lack of toughness more than a dozen times. And as much as Mihalich likes a set lineup, he acknowledged he’d consider all options during what he expected to be a sleepless night.

“They’re bigger, stronger, tougher, more physical,” Mihalich said. “We’re just — we’re none of those things right now.”

An unrelenting schedule could put the Dutchmen in the type of seemingly unrecoverable hole they fell into seven years ago. But the 2009-10 Dutchmen, went 8-1 in the second half of the CAA schedule — a run sparked by resounding, point-differential-helping, got-Benny-Moss-fired 93-54 win over UNC Wilmington— to finish with a 10-8 record and came within a whisker of advancing to the CAA semifinals.

So if this all feels familiar, it should. But history suggests the Dutchmen will not be as bad as they looked Thursday, that Gustys is going to come out of his slump, that a team lacking a true four-year senior but loaded with players who are college basketball veterans is going to play much better at some point. It just may not happen as fast as we, or they, would prefer.

“I wish I could say ‘here’s what we’re going to do,’” Mihalich said Thursday night. “I don’t know. It takes some soul searching here. The guys in the room are going to have to do that too. The players are going to have to decide they don’t like this. I know how I feel/ My only prayer for the night: They feel the same as me, they’re as angry as I am, that they’re as frustrated as I am and want to do something about it. I know I want to do something about it.”

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