Tuesday, March 6, 2018

We’re not sick but we’re not well

The CAA will determine its men’s basketball champion tonight. For the 15th time in 17 years, the Flying Dutchmen will not be on the court. Which means for the 17th time in 17 years, the Flying Dutchmen will not win the CAA title and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, which, in an amazing coincidence, was the last year in which the Dutchmen were not in the CAA.

As far as things to be bummed out about goes, an NCAA Tournament drought that is old enough to drive but not old enough to drink isn’t that big a deal, especially, you know, if you happen to be living through a dystopian hellscape in real time. Even by sporting standards, the 17-year championship drought isn’t all that epic or extended, especially when compared to many of our CAA brethren.

But it’s still frustrating, especially right now, with the odometer fewer than 48 hours from rolling over via a 93-88 loss to UNC Wilmington (who else?) in the CAA quarterfinals. Like we had so many times in the previous 17 Marches, we’d convinced ourselves this was the year. This post was supposed to be about how tonight is what it means to be young and daydreaming about a championship the same day it could be won. Tomorrow (or Thursday, or Friday) was supposed to be the post I’ve always wanted to write, where I tried to describe the indescribable.

Instead, UNC Wilmington did UNC Wilmington things and Hofstra did Hofstra things, and so we get to watch College of Charleston and Northeastern play, and wonder what-if for the next 51 weeks and six days, at least, but if we’re being honest, it’ll probably be longer than that.

Again: Even as we lapse into self-pity and plantive wailing, we know many others, many of whom are our friends, have it worse. Hofstra’s NCAA Tournament drought falls will still be around the middle of the CAA bell curve of misery even if Charleston wins tonight and earns its first NCAA bid since 1999. Drexel (1996), Towson (1991), Elon (no NCAA Tournament berths since moving to Division I in 1999) and William & Mary (no NCAA Tournament berths since the dawn of time) are all enduring longer waits.

In addition, regardless of what happens tonight, the Dutchmen will still have as many or more NCAA Tournament berths in the last 25 years as everyone in the CAA except Charleston, Delaware and UNC Wilmington — a reminder that no matter how good a program is, it still needs some good fortune to reach the promised land.

By most other measures, things have been pretty good in the CAA for the Dutchmen, who have also received many reminders of how much worse things can always be.

The Dutchmen are not only over .500 all-time in regular season CAA play (159-145), they have the second-best record of the seven schools that have been in the league these last 17 seasons. Only Drexel, by a single game, is better. Since joining the CAA, Hofstra has 49 more CAA wins than Towson, which endured the only winless season in league history in 2010-11, and James Madison, which has won six or fewer CAA games 11 times.

No other current CAA program has produced as many player of the year winners as Hofstra, whose four honorees have combined for five awards. The two title game appearances for the Dutchmen are as many as Drexel, one more than James Madison and Delaware (though the Dukes and Blue Hens earned wins in their lone appearances) and two more than Towson and Elon.

Over the last five years, the Dutchmen have gone 48-40 in CAA play while earning an NIT bid, reaching the CAA Tournament title game once, making the semifinals twice and earning a top-five seed three times. Bet that would have sounded pretty good back in April 2013, when the Dutchmen had four players and no coach, especially if you were told all those wins would come with a grand total of zero arrests.

We have seen some all-time great players suit up for the Dutchmen over the last 17 seasons. Twelve of the 36 players to score 1,000 points for the Dutchmen have arrived since 2001, including three of the top four as well as Justin Wright-Foreman, who has put himself on pace to reach the top five. The combined point totals for those dozen players: 17,750 points.

Five of the top 20 rebounders played entirely during the CAA era, including Rokas Gustys, who is the most prolific rebounder in Hofstra’s Division I history and will likely surpass David Robinson as the CAA’s all-time leading rebounder if the Dutchmen play in the CIT (fine) or CBI (barf). Six of the players on the top ten list in assists have played during the CAA era, as well as six of the top 10 shot blockers.

So it has been pretty good, especially if you are old enough to remember the days of the piecemeal ECC with no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But it is possible to have more than we could have imagined almost a quarter-century ago and to still lament why we don’t have more, and to wonder if “more” is anywhere on the horizon.

The slow build with iconic four-year players such as Gustys, Charles Jenkins, Antoine Agudio, Loren Stokes and Carlos Rivera didn’t yield an NCAA Tournament for the Dutchmen. Everything appeared aligned in 2006, but then Stokes got punched in the nuts and Tom O’Connor delivered a crotch shot of his own a few days later. Five years after that, Jenkins was going to be surrounded as a senior by two potential all-CAA teammates, but defensive-minded Tom Pecora left for Fordham and Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams followed him to the Atlantic 10 (and made the NCAA Tournament).

Going for the quick fix with a bunch of transfers in 2012-13, a season in which the CAA was in transition and only seven teams were eligible for the conference tournament, really didn’t work out very well. All those morons left, and one of them (a freshman, to boot) went to the NCAA Tournament at his next spot. Adding better transfers with better character following a regime change resulted in a lot more wins and a lot fewer court dates, but Juan’ya Green, Ameen Tanksley, Brian Bernardi and Denton Koon fell a win shy of destiny two years ago tomorrow, when Green had the very worst game of his life at the very worst possible time.

Offensive guru Joe Mihalich has built the first pipeline since the Pecora days for the Dutchmen, whose starting lineup this season was entirely homegrown. But it didn’t work out, again, and now Gustys is out of time and Wright-Foreman is down to one more chance and Eli Pemberton is down to two more chances and Jalen Ray is down to three more chances.

Things are about to get more complicated for Hofstra basketball. There will be a new athletic director soon, working for a president who cannot even muster up the energy to pretend he doesn’t loathe sports.

Beyond the challenges of that task, he or she will inherit Mihalich, a head coach who restored order and respectability to Flying Dutchman basketball, but whose style of play does not seem likely to translate into a championship, even in a league where defense has become as optional as offense once was. The Dutchmen blew a double-digit lead in each of their last three CAA Tournament losses. In 2015, they were eliminated by William & Mary after blowing a nine-point lead in the final five minutes.

You would hope Northeastern’s dismantling of UNC Wilmington last night — in which the Seahawks scored fewer points (52) in 40 minutes than they did in the second half alone (53) against the Dutchmen — would serve as the world’s biggest wakeup call that something has to change to get the program over the top. But do you think Mihalich has a Tom Coughlin streak in him? 

I would like to say he’d better, because otherwise we’re going to be here a year from now, sitting with a title drought old enough to vote and getting ready to watch two other teams play for the CAA title. Except deep down, I know better, and even if Mihalich and the Dutchmen find religion on defense, something else will go askew, leaving Wright-Foreman as the sixth man on the all-time no-time team and the rest of us in our own little purgatory, rooting for a program that is neither as sick as it used to be nor as well as we’d wish.

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