Saturday, February 23, 2019

Senior Day: With Taylor & Dwyer, two are better than one

Joe Mihalich has spent most of the last six decades playing and coaching basketball, but as the son of a former Yankees minor league pitcher knows when a baseball analogy is needed.

And after losing Rokas Gustys and his 1,184 points and 1,305 rebounds — he’s the ace pitcher, for purposes of this exercise — to graduation last year, Mihalich realized Jacquil Taylor and Dan Dwyer had to be the basketball equivalent of the number two and number three starters who fill the ace’s shoes by improving from 12 wins and an ERA around 3.50 to 15 wins and an ERA around 3.00.

(For the purposes of this exercise, we will also momentarily forget that wins are a terrible measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness)

But if you’ve watched enough baseball, you know two plus three rarely equals a one. And the odds of Taylor and Dwyer replicating Gustys’ production were especially long, given that they weren’t the basketball equivalent of holdover mid-to-upper rotation starters. As graduate seniors with one year of eligibility remaining, they were the basketball versions of a free agent signing.

But they weren’t splashy free agent signings. Taylor and Dwyer, each of whom battled injuries throughout their careers at Purdue and Penn, were more like non-roster invitees or lower-tier pitchers signed to minimally priced one-year deals after spring training began.

So while Mihalich said last fall that Taylor and Dwyer would have to replace Gustys, he knew it was probably coach speak and there’d be no way to expect such a performance out of the duo.

And yet entering Senior Day today, Taylor and Dwyer have matched Gustys’ production while bringing with them a set of intangibles that, to be charitable, didn’t exist last season.

The graduate transfer duo is averaging a combined 10.5 points and 11.3 rebounds over 39.8 minutes per game while fouling out once apiece. Last season, Gustys averaged 10.5 points and 12.0 rebounds over 29.7 minutes while fouling out five times.

“It’s impressive, man,” Mihalich said “I didn’t think it was going to happen. I’m ecstatic about it. And it sounds like coach talk, but they help us more as teammates than what the numbers say.”

The numbers are pretty good for a couple of literally scarred players who had no idea a year ago whether or not they would play another season. Taylor was a part of four NCAA Tournament teams at Purdue, but he played in just 38 games due to foot and ankle injuries. He missed his entire junior season due to a stress fracture in his ankle and a subsequent surgery that’s left him with a plate and five screws in the ankle.

Taylor said some people advised him against transferring to a mid-major because he’d already played at the highest level for Purdue. But after making a list of pros and cons, Taylor decided to keep playing.

“The programs, you may not see many (players) of that caliber,” Taylor said. “I got my degree, so I thought I was fine regardless. It actually looked better to get a master’s from another school, too. It just shows that you’re multi-dimensional, that you can adapt to certain situations.”

Dwyer played in 54 games over four seasons but endured a serious health issue in January 2018, when his Penn career ended due to intestinal surgery. As he pulled his shirt up to show the scar, Dwyer said he “…ended up losing a ton of weight. I was out for the rest of the season, so I spent the whole spring trying to get weight back and get back in shape.”

Likely because of the weight loss, it took Dwyer longer to realize he still wanted to play than Taylor, who was the first of the two to commit to Hofstra. Dwyer didn’t visit campus until after he graduated from Penn but was impressed with Mihalich’s honest pitch.

“Right before I committed, Joe Mihalich was saying ‘We have all the scoring we need, we’re just looking for guys to kind of fill out this team, just be good, great team players,’” Dwyer said. “I knew we had the opportunity just to kind of bring some experience and just kind of hustle to the team.”

Taylor and Dwyer said they were pleasantly surprised when there was no feeling-out process with their new, younger yet more experienced teammates. As it turned out, the unassuming duo lifted the mood of a team that was used to being subjected to the ebbs and flows of Gustys’ lone-wolf approach.

Of course, chemistry only goes so far, and it wasn’t clear over the first couple of weeks if Taylor and Dwyer could shake off the rust and begin to approach Gustys’ production, or if Taylor could handle the larger role Mihalich envisioned for him. Over the first five games, the two combined to average 8.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, though neither one played more than 20 minutes in any of those contests.

Taylor had his breakout game in the near-upset of VCU on Nov. 24, when he scored two points and pulled down 17 rebounds in 35 minutes.

“He was the key,” Mihalich said of Taylor. “Danny was always going to be the complimentary guy. It was never going to be Danny playing 30 (minutes) and Jacquil playing 10 It was always going to be Jacquil more than Danny. It went from 20 and 20 to 30 and 10, whatever it gradually became.”

The two have thrived in defined roles during CAA play. Taylor is averaging 10.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks over 28.5 minutes in league action. His tap-out rebound led to the basket of the season — Justin Wright-Foreman’s 34-foot buzzer beater against Northeastern on Jan. 5 — and he helped cement the win over Charleston nine days ago with a similar tap-out to Desure Buie following a Wright-Foreman miss in the final seconds. 

Taylor continued cementing his status as the best Hofstra big man since Adrian Uter on Thursday, when he scored 14 points, pulled down 17 rebounds and blocked seven shots in the double-overtime win over Towson. For comparison’s sake, Gustys had 11 blocks all of last season.

Dwyer’s figures (1.5 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.3 blocks over 12.0 minutes) are more modest but no less essential. He made his biggest box score contributions in the triple-overtime thriller over William & Mary on Jan. 10, when he played 19 minutes, his most in CAA play, and blocked three shots, including one with 13 seconds left and the Dutchmen clinging to a 91-87 lead.

His presence allows Mihalich to find small pockets of rest for Taylor while employing a player with a similar skill set. Both Taylor and Dwyer offer fleet feet in the paint and an ability and/or willingness to block shots, which has greatly improved a zone defense that usually offered a free lane to the basket last season.

They are also more active outside the paint. The two players are able to handle the ball at the top of the key, can kick the ball out when surrounded down low and have displayed an ability to dive for loose balls along the baseline or on the sideline. They are also hitting 70 percent of their free throws (56-for-80), which means they’ve needed 40 fewer attempts to hit 11 more free throws than Gustys drained last season.

Most importantly of all, they don’t mind the timeshare, so Mihalich doesn’t have to worry about bruising any egos.

“I don’t think he ever looks at minutes, how many he’s played, or shots or any of those things,” Mihalich said of Dwyer. “If you need him, he’s ready. If you don’t. fine. I think he’s having the time of his life. He’s a big reason why we win.”

Said Taylor: “I think we’re both really unselfish. We don’t are who starts or who’s coming off the bench. We just care about winning. That’s all that matters to both of us.”

The successful season has also allowed Taylor and Dwyer to pen far different and more upbeat endings to careers that looked as if they might sputter to an anonymous conclusion just 12 months ago.

“Me personally, I wasn’t given as much of an opportunity as I feel like I deserved,” Taylor said. “So I feel like it was time for me to go at least show what I can do. We’ve managed to do something special so far.”

“It’s just so much fun,” Dwyer said. “As time goes on, as you get older, you realize, you start to appreciate how much fun it is to come in everyday. You start to take less for granted. Instead of that mindset where I have to go lift, I have to go practice — I get to practice, I get to hang out with these guys for three hours a day, It’s just been a blast.”

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