Sunday, March 4, 2018

Flip the switch into overdrive...

Come for the Hofstra hoops, stay for the Loverboy video.

I spend my summers watching the Mets because it’s like spending six months on line for a rollercoaster. Apparently, I like to watch people scream and cover their eyes and laugh and cry and feel their stomachs rise into their throats and their throats fall into their stomachs before I finally climb on the ride myself.

But even the recent Mets playoff teams eased into the chaos of the rollercoaster. The pennant-winning 2015 season began Apr. 6, when the Mets were no-hit into the sixth inning by Max Scherzer before coming back for a 3-1 win notable only because the save was earned by Buddy Carlyle, the only save he recorded in a big league career that stretched back to 1999.

The Mets won 11 straight in April and settled into a seemingly routine 90-win pace before the really nutty stuff — becoming the first team in nearly 30 years to fall under .500 after being at least 10 games over the break-even mark, employing John Mayberry Jr. as a cleanup hitter well into July, getting no-hit twice and trading but not trading a crying Wilmer Flores two days before he hit a walk-off homer that sparked their run to the World Series — began transpiring. 

The 2016 season opened in even more milquetoast fashion with a wire-to-wire 4-3 loss to the reigning champion Royals. The Mets then lapsed into an extended period of sustained, herky-jerky mediocrity before going from under .500 on Aug. 20 to a ninth-inning loss in the wild card game.

The Mets, in other words, are not our beloved Flying Dutchmen, getting their crazy on before the ride even starts.

Do you remember where you were 16 weeks ago Friday night? I was at the Arena, watching the 2017-18 season swing a weighted bat in the on-deck circle and wondering where in the hell Eli Pemberton was.

Pemberton, one of the members of last year’s CAA all-rookie team, was nowhere to be found as the Dutchmen began their layup line. Had he turned pro overnight? Dropped out of school to backpack across Europe? Been abducted by aliens? 

As it turned out, he was in sweats watching warmups, along with Kenny Wormley and Stafford Trueheart. The trio were suspended for a violation of team rules, which sounded innocent enough but still had me fretting and worrying about the season falling apart before the papier-mâché was even applied.

Finally, a friend pleaded for reason. 

“Don’t be that guy,” he said.

Don’t be that guy? Are you new around here?

Obsessing over worst-case scenarios quickly gave way to gripping the seats as the undermanned Dutchmen eked out a 79-76 win over Army, which was picked to finish seventh in the Patriot League (and finished tied for eighth). From there, the ride got a little more crowded — Pemberton, Trueheart and Wormley only missed the one game — but no less filled with hairpin turns and thrills turning to chills and back again.

Sixteen of the Dutchmen’s 30 regular season games were decided by six points or fewer or in overtime. To use that statistic alone to declare this season more dramatic than its predecessors would be to lapse into RECENCY BIAS! The percentage of close shaves actually falls in line with the Dutchmen’s propensity to play closer games in the 30-second shot clock era. The Dutchmen had 35 of 66 games decided by six points or fewer the previous two seasons, the first with the shorter shot clock.

But these games WERE wilder than usual. There were the comeback wins over Monmouth, James Madison and Towson that were either extended to overtime or completed with buzzer-beating shots, all of which landed the Dutchmen on SportsCenter. Such drama inspired daydreams of destiny, even amongst those of us who don’t have such thoughts wafting through our heads everyday from November through March.

But then there were the gut-wrenching losses to William & Mary, in which the Dutchmen squandered a five-point lead in the final 30 seconds, and Charleston, which came back from double-digit deficits in both of its wins. There were also the lopsided defeats to Northeastern, Elon and UNC Wilmington, the latter of which was a 20-point lashing delivered nine days after the Dutchmen beat the Seahawks by 20 points — the first time ever Hofstra has earned a 20-point win and suffered a 20-point loss against the same team in the same season. Such valleys inspired dark nights filled with angsty pessimism, even amongst those of us who don’t have such thoughts wafting through our heads everyday from November through March.

But even those of us who swore angsty pessimism would remain our default setting wavered over the final two weeks of the regular season, during which the Dutchmen won four straight — three by six points or fewer and the other one a wire-to-wire win during James Madison’s Senior Night — to earn the third seed in the CAA Tournament, which is noteworthy because only three teams seeded lower than third have ever won the CAA.

It’s exactly what you want to see, exhibiting a little bit of the closer’s instinct combined with the feeling the team is peaking at the right time. Of course, this is the time of year where every little thing is a sign that this is Our Year — for crying out loud, I wrote five preview pieces in advance of the 2012 CAA Tournament, when the Dutchmen completed their worst season of the Defiantly Dutch era (record-wise, anyway, the next season was worse in every other way) by opening and closing tourney play with a 35-point loss — so I will understand if you are reading this with a dollop of salt. Frankly, you should probably be doing that anyway. 

But still. In Justin Wright-Foreman, the Dutchmen have the CAA player of the year as well as the most prolific scorer most of us have ever seen, even if he’s not going to end up the program’s all-time leading scorer thanks to spending his freshman season playing just 110 minutes and scoring only 44 points. Rokas Gustys, as imperfect as he can be at times, is far and away the most prolific big man most of us have ever seen.

Pemberton has looked like Loren Stokes the last few weeks — sans, we can only hope, the nut punch this weekend. Since Desure Buie became the starting point guard, the Dutchmen are 10-4, a stretch in which Buie has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 61/18. Trueheart is a terrific glue guy on both ends of the floor.

And unlike any previous Joe Mihalich team, there’s depth behind the starters. Jalen Ray, a member of the CAA’s all-freshman team, looks like a future 1,000-point scorer. Gustys’ backup, Hunter Sabety, would have started for most Hofstra teams. Wormley is a solid reserve point guard. 

Beyond all the numbers lies the sense that this team has “it,” whatever “it” is. The statistical revolution will tell you clutchness can’t be measured, but anyone  parroting that has never seen Wright-Foreman or Ray at crunch time. There appears to be a cool chemistry, created by roster dominated by players who have spent their entire career at Hofstra. It was fun to watch Wright-Foreman mime a rebounder while Gustys was introduced at Senior Day last weekend.

The trip to Charleston (sorry, “North Charleston,” it’s a neutral site, wink wink nudge nudge) turned into something John Hughes — the movie John Hughes, not the basketball John Hughes — would have scripted, but the 14-hour train trek necessitated by Friday’s wild and windy storm doesn’t seem to have fazed the Dutchmen. There even seems to be an unusual calmness surrounding Mihalich, who, like most coaches, typically grows grumpier as the season wears on but is bordering on buoyant lately.

Of course, on the first weekend of March, we see and perceive what we want to see and perceive, and the previous 1,300-plus words will be even more disposable than usual if the Dutchmen lose anytime between tonight, when they begin tournament play against sixth-seeded UNC Wilmington, and Tuesday.

But a season that has been in overdrive since it was in park offers more promise than usual that this will finally be the year the rollercoaster ends with a euphoric whoosh instead of a thud at breakneck speed. Let this finally be the season I tell Mets fans about this summer, instead of another one with which I commiserate.

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