Thursday, February 4, 2016

I know why I go to extremes

About Hofstra fandom, and perhaps the frequency with which this blog is updated.

A friend who shall remain nameless so that he doesn’t have to acknowledge knowing me popped up in Facebook chat recently wanting to talk Hofstra basketball.

“You’ve treated this season just like I did the Mets,” he wrote.

(PS: Yes. I shoveled out of a blizzard last weekend and found my blog)

He’s right. I was determined, after listening to this friend caterwaul from the beginning of the summer all the way to the last game of the World Series about how awful Terry Collins was and how he was going to screw the Mets and how doomed they all were, that I would not follow in his footsteps.

I told him, and the handful of other people in the biz who are actually aware that Hofstra plays Division I basketball, that I would approach this season of heightened expectations with optimism and eagerness instead of pessimism and fatalism. I was going to enjoy the ride, regardless of the eventual destination.

If the Flying Dutchmen did what the prognosticators expected them to—win the CAA for the first time and head to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001—I didn’t want to look back and realize I spent most of the trip in the backseat barking about traffic and how we were going the wrong way and how we’d never get there, only to find out we got there in terrifically memorable fashion. 

That philosophy lasted 10 days, or about as long as most of the New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made. Ameen Tanksley’s missed buzzer-beater in a 67-66 loss to Indiana State — in which the Dutchmen trailed by 17 in the second half only to blow a seven-point lead in the final two minutes—triggered the release of all the painful memories I’d repressed through months of quack therapy.

My thoughts were now dominated by the blown nine-point lead against William & Mary and all those missed free throws before Daniel Dixon’s wide-open 3 and Tony Skinn’s punch to the nuts and the blown lead in the second half of the NIT quarterfinal against Old Dominion and Greg Johnson driving for two (AND MISSING) when the Dutchmen were down three against George Mason and Antoine Agudio missing a free throw that would have iced an eventual two-overtime loss to George Mason in January 2008 and Charles Jenkins getting drafted by the Warriors but traded before they became the most dominant NBA champions since the dynasty-era Bulls. 

And that’s just the men’s basketball misery. 

For the next two months I rode the emotional rollercoaster, not only from game to game but sometimes possession to possession. I not only reneged on my promise to my friend, but I behaved worse than he did. I clouded any good moment by craning my neck to the sky to see if it was falling. Any less-than-perfect moment WAS the sky falling. I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, but I play one on game day. 

But here’s the crazy thing about conditioning yourself to expect the worst: You also possess the acute awareness required to absorb the moment when things are going better than expected. Like right now. 

The Dutchmen are in the midst of a four-game winning streak and producing the type of victories we rarely get to enjoy. There was the 96-92 triple-overtime win over Northeastern (actually, Hofstra is 3-0 all-time in triple overtime games, so we always get to enjoy triple overtime games!) in which the Dutchmen didn’t trail over the final 37-plus minutes of regulation and missed potential game-winning shots at the end of regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime.

The Dutchmen got revenge for last March’s agonizing loss to William & Mary by trouncing the Tribe 91-63 three days later. But in true hexed Hofstra fashion, that win was overshadowed by the season- and career-ending knee injury suffered by Malik Nichols, which turned a thin seven-man rotation into a six-man rotation with all the depth of onion typing paper (GOOGLE IT CRAIN).

Without Nichols, the Dutchmen grinded out narrow wins over Elon (in which the Dutchmen led by 13 in the second half and fell behind in the final minute before Juan’ya Green drained the game-winning shot with 2.7 seconds left) and Drexel (in which the Dutchmen trailed three-win Drexel by 13 in the second half).

The Dutchmen of last season—or two months ago—might not have gone any better than 1-3 in that stretch. Perhaps this team of experienced players who have not played all that often together—the starting five has combined for just nine seasons at Hofstra—is beginning to gel and develop the chemistry, especially of the end-game variety, that often seemed to be missing for their first 15 months together.

And perhaps this is turning into the season we’ve been waiting for since 2005-06. The similarities to 10 years ago are growing downright eerie.

As a do-everything point guard wearing no. 1, Green is doing a fine Loren Stokes impersonation. In Denton Koon, the Dutchmen have a 6-foot-8 matchup-creating nightmare who can play anywhere on the court, a la Aurimas Kieza. And in the beastly Rokas Gustys—he gets double-doubles on days of the week that end in -y—Hofstra has a big man who is a finished product, a la Adrian Uter, and not a lottery ticket.

Now, like then, every CAA game was an epic battle in which mere survival, not style points, was the objective, especially with a team that relies heavily on its starters. This year’s Dutchmen have outscored CAA opponents by an average of 7.9 points per game. The Dutchmen of a decade ago outscored CAA opponents by an average of 5.4 points in 18 regular season games.

The 2005-06 team received 89.9 percent of its scoring and 80.3 percent of its minutes from the quintet of Stokes, Kieza, Uter, Carlos Rivera and Antoine Agudio. This year’s starting five—Green, Koon, Gustys, Tanksley and Brian Bernardi—are accounting for 88.4 percent of the scoring and 83.3 percent of the minutes thus far.

One thing the 2005-06 team never did was host a late-season game with first place implications. But the Dutchmen will do that tonight, when UNCW—seeking its first championship since 2005-06—visits in a battle of CAA co-leaders. It will be the first time the Dutchmen have hosted a game with first place on the line after February 1 since 2000, when Hofstra, led by now-assistant coach Speedy Claxton, came from behind to beat Maine 67-64 and clinch the no. 1 seed in the America East tournament. 

As fun as it is to finally harbor legitimate NCAA Tournament dreams for the Flying Dutchmen, it’s even better that their revival is symbolic of the athletic program as a whole.

On Friday night, the Flying Dutchwomen host James Madison with at least a share of first place in the CAA on the line. The Dutchwomen and Drexel are each 7-2, a half-game behind 7-1 James Madison. It is the first time in the Defiantly Dutch era—going way back to aught ’93-94—that the women’s basketball team is playing a post-Feb. 1 home game with first-place implications.

These back-to-back first-place battles come after a fall season in which both soccer teams advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament while the volleyball team earned a share of the CAA’s regular season crown. I have never been someone who measures the success of Hofstra athletics by conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, but such a school year is especially gratifying after a 2013-14 in which no team won a conference championship (the only title-less academic year of the post-ECC era) and only the softball team advanced to the NCAAs.

That blip on the radar seemed to be so much more coming at the end of a ruinous five-year period that shook our faith in a way we didn’t think possible. Remember when the Dutchmen going 27-70 from 2011-12 through 2013-14 didn’t even get the bronze medal in the Olympics of misery?

It’s a good thing we wavered but didn’t topple, for these are the good ol’ days. This season, with its “where were you when…” moments and the emotional investment that lends itself to such varied mood swings, is what we signed up for when fate and destiny determined our fandom.

There are likely to be more extremes ahead of us. Six-man rotations, inconsistent free throw shooting and a CAA as good as it was 10 years ago will keep us up for the next four weeks leading into the tournament in Baltimore (better be there, it’s the last time the CAA will ever allow it to be within driving distance of the America East five—sorry had to get that in there). There are many more miles left to drive (not as many as between here and Charleston, but a lot) and plenty of opportunities to declare we’re hopelessly lost and that we’re getting out right here and hitchhiking home.

In the end, maybe this isn’t going to turn out like the Mets season. Maybe there will be no equivalent of a Game 5 win over the Dodgers or a four-game sweep of the Cubs or flirtation with the biggest prize of all.

But maybe there will, beginning tonight.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Of Shaka, softball and sinister selection committees

The Western Athletic Conference (file photo)

Six weeks ago last night, Shaka Smart left VCU for Texas. This is presented to you not for its newsworthiness—unless you were stuck under a rock for the last seven weeks, in which case, hey, Shaka Smart left VCU for Texas—but because the Hofstra softball team begins its annual trip to the NCAA Tournament today, and its rotten draw serves as a reminder of why the Shakas of the world don’t stay in one place anymore.

In case you were under the aforementioned rock, or simply stumbled upon here with no connection to or interest in Hofstra softball (in which case, thank you, Carole King fans!), the Flying Dutchwomen reached the NCAA Tournament for the 16th time by winning the CAA for the 11th time last week, when they beat top-seed and host James Madison on Thursday and Friday.

Prior to the first loss to the Dutchwomen, James Madison had won 36 straight games. For going 38-2 in its final 40 games, the Dukes were granted one of the 16 seeds and the right to host a regional this weekend, when Binghamton, North Carolina State and Fordham will visit Harrisonburg.

This is not to denigrate James Madison or declare the Dukes didn’t deserve to host. It’s actually nice to see an NCAA Tournament selection committee reward a mid-major team for sustained regular season excellence, instead of punishing it for one or two ill-timed losses in the conference tournament. James Madison is 12th in the RPI. It is a rightful regional host.

I should be writing the same six words about Hofstra. But I’m not, because Hofstra got screwed. Yet again.

The Dutchwomen’s reward for continuing the program’s history of excellence and putting a bow on an outstanding tournament resume—Hofstra is 13th in the latest RPI—by beating one of the best teams in the country twice at their place? A trip to the University of Florida and a regional hosted by the Gators, the defending national champions and the number one overall seed in this year’s tournament.

So basically, the selection committee is saying the Dutchwomen are the worst eight or nine seed in the tournament. With an RPI of 13.

If only this were something new, and not the continuation of a trend.

Remember the 2012 Flying Dutchwomen, the best softball team in school history, if not the flat-out best team in Hofstra sports history? That squad rode the bionic right arm of Olivia Galati to a 37-3 mark in its final 40 pre-NCAA Tournament games, including a 22-0 record in CAA play. Its reward was a trip to 12-time national champion UCLA and a regional that also included San Diego State and Florida State.

This is where I cut-and-paste this nugget from the SEEDING/SITES bullet point in the press release announcing this year’s field: “The top 16 teams were seeded in order, and the remaining teams are paired by geographic proximity.” The Atlanta Braves of 1969-1993 think the NCAA sucks at geography.

But hey, at least the NCAA got better at it this year. Florida is no easy jaunt from Hempstead, but on the bright side, it’s only 1,038 same time zone miles between campuses. If the NCAA is only going to allow one cold weather mid-major to host a regional—this is where we all guffaw at the NCAA when it declares that seeds are assigned blindly and with no quotas in mind—then I suppose a trip down the eastern seaboard isn’t that much of an inconvenience.

Except, well, the only other school hitting the road with a top 16 RPI is no. 15 Central Florida, which was the lone representative from the disaster known as the American Athletic Conference. For winning that hodgepodge East Coast Conference wanna-be #HiLitos, Central Florida gets a trip to a regional hosted by ninth-seeded Florida State, a whopping 271 miles away. Seems fair.

We spend every March screeching about the NCAA punishing mid-majors that dare to sit at—or even near—the cool kids’ table in the men’s basketball tournament. Remember unbeaten Wichita State drawing eighth-seeded Kentucky in the second round (go to hell, NCAA, it’s the second round no matter what you try to call it) last year?

Or how about VCU, which, of course, advanced to the Final Four in 2011 (ha ha Larranaga)? The Rams made the NCAA Tournament in each of the next four seasons, when they were sent to Oregon, Michigan, California and Oregon again. The total mileage traveled—per our good friend @VCUPav, who went to all four tournaments—was a tidy 8,983 miles.

Total Sweet Sixteens visited by VCU in those four years: None. That’ll teach ‘em.

And VCU’s first-round opponents the last four years? Three mid-majors (Wichita State, Akron and Stephen F. Austin #MidOnMidCrime) and Ohio State. When VCU knocked off Akron (where Smart used to serve as an assistant coach—no, I’m sure that was just a coincidence) in the 2013 first round, the Rams’ reward was a game with default home school and eventual national finalist Michigan.

Turns out the same punishments are meted out in softball. Hofstra has been to 13 NCAA Tournaments this century, by far the most of any cold-weather-mid major program.

When the Dutchwomen fell one hit shy of the World Series in 2012—they went 3-0 in the UCLA regional and beat South Florida in the opener of the Super Regional before losing a pair of 2-1 games, nope, never getting over that—it was the closest a cold-weather mid-major had come to reaching the biggest stage since UMass competed in the World Series in 1998.

Can’t have that happen again, right NCAA?

It’s almost honorific for a men’s basketball program to be forced to pay for its success—or threat of success—by a selection committee dominated by good ol’ boys out to preserve their standing. But the Dutchwomen were mistreated this year by a selection committee headed by a chairwoman, Mollie Lehman, who hails from the Western Athletic Conference.

The WAC is to Division I conferences what the post office is to everyday life: A dusty, terminally outdated relic that still exists because nobody’s had the heart to pull the plug. To get punished by the WAC is like being bullied by Milhouse.

But hey, at least Mollie gave her alma mater and former employer, Binghamton, a decent, travel-friendly draw after it reached the softball tourney for the first time.

We struck a surprisingly optimistic tone after the agonizing near-misses against South Florida. But this week is a reminder of how difficult it is to overcome the NCAA and the hurdles—higher and more densely placed every year—it places in the way of mid-majors in every sport.

With decades invested as a student, fan and alum, we have no choice but to grit our teeth, ride it out and hope for the miracle screw you run. But who can blame the Shakas of the world for choosing a smoother path?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Oh. My. God. It's #TheJanice!

Phoebe: Janice? You called Janice?
Chandler: Yes, Janice. Why is that so difficult for you to comprehend?
Ross: You remember Janice, right?
--Friends, “The One Where Mr. Heckles Dies,” Season 2

Let’s be clear about one thing: The CBI sucks. I mean, really, really sucks.

It’s not just that the Flying Dutchmen are 0-2 all-time in the CBI. Hofstra is winless in the NCAA Tournament, too, and has a losing record in the NIT, but I’d do cartwheels if we ever get back to one of those tourneys.

It’s that the CBI is Calvinball, on the floor and behind the scenes. This is a tournament that is bracketed for the first two rounds but then shuffled for the semifinals before the last two teams play a best-of-three championship series. What’s next? Games declared ties if teams are tied at the end of regulation? Or overtime consisting of duck-duck-goose?

The CBI is run by the Gazelle Group, which, ahem, has made no friends with the equal parts ruthlessness and incompetence with which it operates the CBI as well as its preseason tournaments. I thought Hofstra learned this when the Flying Dutchmen traveled to the Evansville on less than 24 hours notice to play a game in a Division II gym in the 2011 CBI, or when the Dutchmen were sent to Purdue instead of Villanova to open a Gazelle Group tournament bleak in November 2012, but I guess not.

The CBI is a joke, and something we should laugh at, even as Hofstra inexplicably participates in it for a third time tonight, when the Dutchmen host former North Atlantic Conference/America East foe Vermont at 7. I’m just an unfrozen caveman blogger, but if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that the CIT was interested in Hofstra and awarded bids to CAA foes James Madison and UNC Wilmington.

But whatever. The CBI is here, and the logo I imagine Hofstra is footing the bill for is on the court as I type, so we must make the best of this hate-watching experience.

We must call the CBI by its new name, The Janice. As in Janice Litman Goralnik, who was one of only three non-core characters to appear on every season of Friends. (thank you Wikipedia)

She was loud, shrill, annoying and generally awful. Nobody liked her and everybody made fun of her. You know, kind of like the CBI.

Yet Chandler kept hooking up with Janice, and Ross even bedded her once.  We are now Chandler and Ross, going back to play in a tournament we’re embarrassed to be a part of because, well, we all get lonely and maybe we panicked while CBI and CIT bids were being bandied about last week.

Regardless of how we got here, we are here, ashamed to be in the CBI, certain we’ll be making fun of it later. So why wait? Let’s make fun of it in real time. Beginning right now, please refer to the CBI not as the CBI but as #TheJanice.

Now that we’re treating #TheJanice with the reverence it deserve, there’s only two things left to do.

And after winning the whole (TV edit) thing, let the Flying Dutchmen find their Monica or Rachel, and let us never speak of or partake in #TheJanice ever again.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

We don’t sleep, we dream

Well, it’s too late to turn back now. It was one thing to get in the car Friday afternoon and drive roughly 227 miles over nearly five interminable hours, all the while finding promising signs on the radio that made us imagine what it’d be like to have to figure out a way to get back to Baltimore if the Flying Dutchmen made it to Monday night.

(Have I mentioned we have to go back Sunday night? I’ll save that story. It’s a good one)

But to actually see the Dutchmen rout James Madison 74-57 in the quarterfinals Saturday afternoon? We could say all the right things about simply being satisfied in getting to the semifinals for the first time since 2011, or about the challenge that awaits the Dutchmen in today’s semifinal game against William & Mary.

We could even just heed the words of Moussa Kone, the lone four-year member of this year’s Dutchmen roster, who boiled Saturday’s win down to its most basic form.

“Means we can stay here and not go home,” said Kone, who continued playing like a senior trying to stave off going home for good by leading the Dutchmen with 18 points and 11 rebounds.

But no. It’s too late for caution, too late for tempered optimism. We are all damn in. All or nothing.

That’s how good the Dutchmen looked Saturday, when they dominated a James Madison team that outscored Hofstra by 29 points over the final 61:02 the two teams played against each other in the regular season.

On both ends of the court, this was a clinic in a coach realizing what didn’t work the first two times, and players implementing adjustments.

The Dutchmen took almost as many 3-pointers (61) as shots from inside the arc (64) in the regular season games against James Madison but drained just 19 from long range.

“First time we played them, we shot a lot of threes,” Ameen Tanksley said. “We got into that rhythm of just chucking threes and trying to find a way to make them.”

On Saturday, the Dutchmen were 7-of-20 from 3-point land but a whopping 24-of-33 from inside the arc. Kone set the tone on the first basket of the game, when he put back a miss by Juan’ya Green. Kone and Rokas Gustys finished with 29 points, on 14-of-18 shooting, and 16 rebounds in 40 minutes as the Dutchmen outscored the Dukes 46-28 in the paint and dominated the second chance points by a 25-12 margin.

Tanksley had 16 points on just 5-of-15 shooting, but a pair of individual 5-0 runs sparked the decisive turns of momentum in each half. In the first, Tanksley’s five straight points tied the game at 20-20 and began a 19-4 run that gave the Dutchmen the lead for good. In the second, his five straight points spanning the midway point of the half extended the lead to 13 points and started a game-ending 23-14 run.

Defensively, the duos of Kone and Gustys and Dion Nesmith and Malik Nichols ensured a far better outcome than in the regular season games. James Madison shot better than 50 percent (49-of-97) in the first two contests but just 37 percent (20-of-54) on Saturday.

After allowing James Madison to shoot better than 50 percent (49-of-97) in the regular season games, the Dutchmen held the Dukes to 37 percent shooting (20-of-54). Ron Curry, who torched the Dutchmen for 45 points in the regular season, had 18 points but was worked to exhaustion, a la Charles Jenkins in 2011, by the combination of Nesmith and Nichols.

“Our battle cry all week was we had to be a better defensive team,” Joe Mihalich said. “I thought, clearly, we were.”

Most encouraging of all, the Dutchmen played with poise and purpose that was often missing this season. A miserable first half at the free throw line—the Dutchmen were 3-of-10 from the so-called charity stripe—kept the game closer than it had to be.

James Madison whittled a 13-point deficit to six in the final 3:20 of the first half, during which the Dutchmen missed six of their final seven shots, including three putbacks in the final three seconds. But the lead never fell below eight following Kone’s layup to begin the second half, when the Dutchmen shot 56 percent (15-of-27).

“Today, toughness showed through,” Mihalich said. “We haven’t been tough every game this year, and that’s on me. But we certainly were tough today.”

You bet everyone else noticed. The buzz downstairs at the Royal Farms Arena was over the danger the Dutchmen could pose over the next two nights. We spent much of the game with some William & Mary fans, who acknowledged they’d rather see James Madison win.

Nobody took more notice of what happened Saturday than the Dutchmen themselves.

“We don’t think we should have had as many losses in conference,” Tanksley said. “As coach said, every game, we didn’t come out playing hard. I believe if we came out playing hard every game. we would have had two losses. At most.”

Now we begin to believe the Dutchmen can hand out two more losses in the next 40 or so hours. Even blinded by newfound belief, we know William & Mary didn’t trail for a second in sweeping the Dutchmen in the regular season. The Tribe have the Player of the Year in Marcus Thornton and the Defensive Player of the Year in Terry Tarpey.

William & Mary played terrific defense of its own in a 72-59 win over Elon earlier Saturday and played like a team that knows its window of opportunity to end the 322-year NCAA Tournament drought slams shut after this season.

But we also know the Dutchmen lost the first game this season to William & Mary by 21 points, and the second by two points. We know Juan’ya Green scored “just” 10 points on Saturday, though he added eight assists. We know the Dutchmen won by 17 on a day in which Brian Bernardi was scoreless from 3-point land until the final minute.

As good as Saturday was, it can get better. It will get better, today. Sure, such an approach sets us up for heartache, and for the agony of realizing just how long a road it is to get back to a chance to even play for a berth in a conference title game.

It’s OK. We’re willing to take that risk.

“It’s a very good team,” Mihalich said of William & Mary. “There’s a lot of things we have to do—how much time we got? [A reporter] wants to know how to beat William & Mary. I need a good 45, 50 minutes.”

We’ll take 40 today. Then 40 more tomorrow. It’s too late to turn back now.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

I'm driving the Dutchmen Express

Kix will no longer be the first thing we think about Baltimore come Monday night!

The first full song we heard in the car Friday afternoon after leaving my wife’s school and hitting the road for Baltimore was “Come Dancing” by The Kinks.

(Honest to God true story: The song that was on when I turned the ignition was “Highway to Hell.” Nope. Not going to Richmond!)

At the rest stop in New Jersey, I saw a guy wearing an alumni sweatshirt from La Salle, the alma mater of Flying Dutchmen head coach Joe Mihalich. Somewhere between New Jersey and Delaware we saw an RV with the words “DUTCHMEN EXPRESS” painted across it. And the first song we heard upon hitting the Baltimore city limits was “Dance With Me” by Orleans (GOOGLE IT CRAIN).

So by the time I took a seat at Royal Farms Arena (think Nassau Coliseum, except older but with nicer seats, a crapton of Major Indoor Soccer League banners hanging from the rafters and probably less asbestos hanging from the roof), I was already wondering where we could storm the court on Monday night and imagining the Flying Dutchmen forming a euphoric pile of humanity at center court.

(Oh and within my first hour in the Arena, I managed to win a bottle of Buffalo Wild Wings sauce in a ring toss game at the Buffalo Wild Wings booth, which is the closest we get to Buffalo Wild Wings at the Arena despite Buffalo Wild Wings being a sponsor of the CAA Tournament. #ThatsSoCAAHoops)

Of course, it never takes me much to fully invest in the possibilities of March magic, even and especially when the numbers don’t support a deep CAA Tournament run by the Dutchmen. Which, let’s face it, has been the case every year since at least 2008, and if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us were surprised when the 2007 team was one-and-done, either (FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST GREG KICK THE BALL OUT TO ANTOINE AGUDIO).

And none of us will be surprised if the Dutchmen are on I-95 north by the time Northeastern and Delaware tip off in the final game of Saturday’s quarterfinal quadruple header. The Dutchmen played two good halves in getting swept this season by James Madison. As we’ve noted, teams that win the two games in a regular season series win a tournament re-rematch pretty often.

But…for the first time since this sporadically updated blog was founded (ca. 2008), it is equally easy to imagine the Dutchmen playing on Monday, and beyond. Bless the unprecedented parity in CAA Hoops (which you can read about here) for giving us all a reason to believe.

But…the 0-2 teams are red-hot lately. Elon and College of Charleston both vanquished regular season sweeps Friday night in beating Towson and Drexel in the out bracket games. In last year’s semifinals, William & Mary shrugged off a pair of regular season losses to Towson to knock off the Tigers.

Plus, Joe Mihalich wins March tournament games. Dating back to his days as the head coach at Niagara, Mihalich’s teams have won their conference tournament opener 13 times in 16 tries. He’ll have them ready to play today.

Of course, presuming William & Mary beats eighth-seeded Elon at noon today—and I don’t think the Tribe, which is trying to end a 322-year NCAA Tournament drought, is going to be caught overlooking anyone after the Drexel debacle last weekend—the task will only get taller if the Dutchmen beat James Madison.

I mean, at least the Dutchmen have led the Dukes this season. William & Mary led wire-to-wire in both wins over the Dutchmen. And the Tribe can match the Dutchmen’s high-octane offense, but thanks to Terry Tarpey, it can play some pretty good defense too.

But the Dutchmen only lost 80-78 against the Tribe on Feb. 22, when Hofstra completely erased a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes before Marcus Thornton hit two free throws in the final five seconds. All the pressure will be on the Tribe, whose entire season has been about getting back to the title game and giving Thornton a chance to drain the game-winning shot he missed against Delaware at the buzzer last season.

And who will be hotter than the Dutchmen if they get to Monday night? Only two teams seeded lower than fourth have made the CAA Tournament final since 2000. Advance to the Monday and it’s going to be difficult to beat the combination of momentum and adrenaline possessed by Hofstra.

As much as I try to remind myself little to none of this is actually going to happen, I can also, for once, find some people sharing my blind optimism. The computers and the wise guys love the Dutchmen, because the raw numbers are good (seriously, how did this team rank third in the CAA in opponents points per possession?). Our friend John Templon joins Ken Pomeroy in giving the Dutchmen a 36 percent chance of reaching the finals and a 21 percent chance of winning it all. The gambling website Covers has the Dutchmen’s odds of winning the tournament at 9/4, tied with Northeastern for second-best behind William & Mary.

Everything’s aligning. The music gods are on our side, the number-crunchers are behind us and Vinny in Vegas is going to pay for his buffet dinners with his Hofstra winnings the next three nights. And I’ve got a bottle of Buffalo Wild Wings barbeque sauce, for some reason.

The Dutchmen Express is on the road and won’t leave Baltimore until Monday night. Climb aboard.

So why did the CAA throw such a parity party this season?

The mascots for this season and this weekend?

By any measure—statistical or the eye test—the 2015 CAA regular season was the most unpredictable and parity-ridden in at least 10 years.

There was, as we all know, a four-way tie for first place at 12-6—the first three- or four-way tie in league history and just the third four-way tie at the Division I level in the last six years.

The four-way tie did not include Hofstra, which was the last unbeaten team in league play at 4-0 yet finished alone in fifth at 10-8. The Dutchmen edged out Delaware, which opened up 0-10 in non-conference play—the worst start ever by a defending CAA champion—and lost its first three CAA games before finishing 9-9.

The regular season ended last Saturday with William & Mary and UNC
Wilmington taking the court five hours apart and knowing a win would give them the regular season title. Yet the Tribe (Drexel) and Seahawks (Elon) were routed by teams that played in the out bracket games last night.

Those wins by Drexel and Elon helped the bottom half of the CAA finish 12-38 against the top half. The .240 winning percentage is the highest by the bottom half of the league against the top half since at least 2005-06.

“You never know, when you check the scores after a CAA night, who’s going to win,” Elon coach Matt Matheny said during the CAA’s weekly conference call on Tuesday. “And you can never be surprised, because anybody can beat anybody.”

The team with the longest active winning streak entering the CAA Tournament is Elon, which won its final three games to finish 5-13 in league play. The Phoenix stayed hot last night, when it edged Towson 74-69 in overtime.

So yeah, the league is more wide-open than ever, which gives everyone hope heading into the tournament (alas, that hope has already expired for Drexel and Towson—we pour out a bottle of iced tea for our fallen ECC comrades).

But why? In keeping with the theme of the season, there’s no consistent explanation. Here are three possibilities, with comments from league coaches gleaned from Tuesday’s conference calls.

--Conference realignment has robbed the CAA of its superpowers. VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion combined to win eight of the first 11 championships following the CAA’s expansion in 2001-02, including the final six before VCU (Atlantic 10) exited following the 2011-12 season. Old Dominion (Conference USA) and George Mason (Atlantic 10) left after the 2012-13 season.

Those three teams also finished in the top half of the CAA in each of the seven seasons in which the league had 12 teams (2005-06 through 2011-12).

Not coincidentally, the CAA’s three best seasons featured the largest divide between the top and bottom halves of the league. In 2012, when VCU won the tournament and Drexel was relegated to the NIT despite going 16-2 in league play, the bottom half went just 4-58 (.065) against the top half.

In 2006, the year UNC Wilmington won the tournament, George Mason made the Final Four as an at-large (grr) and Hofstra was robbed of a third bid (grr), the bottom half went 4-56 (.067) against the top half. And in 2011, when the league sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament for the first time and VCU went from the “First Four” to the Final Four (yay!), the bottom half was 7-53 (.117) against the top half.

But this year marks the second time in the last three seasons a team picked to finish next-to-last in the preseason poll ended up second. Towson was picked 10th in an 11-team CAA in 2012-13.

“Before all the major league changes around the country, there was often that one or two teams that were maybe a step above everybody else,” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said. “I thought the bottom 80 percent has always been very balanced. I said back in the fall at media day I don’t think this league this year has that one or two great teams.”

--Injuries evened the playing field.

William & Mary played five games in February without Daniel Dixon. Drexel lost Major Canady to a broken ankle in the preseason and Sooren Derboghosian to knee surgery after eight games. Rodney Williams played in just 22 games due to a stress fracture in his foot and Player of the Year runner-up Damion Lee suffered a season-ending broken wrist against Northeastern on Feb. 21.

UNC Wilmington’s Freddie Jackson didn’t miss a game, but was hobbled for weeks by an ankle injury he suffered at Hofstra on Jan. 17. James Madison lost preseason first-teamer Andre Nation when Matt Brady finally kicked him off the team on Jan. 14 following numerous suspensions over the last two-plus seasons. Hofstra’s two big men, Moussa Kone and Rokas Gustys, each missed several games with leg injuries.

“A lot of it has to do with injuries,” Shaver said. “Drexel, obviously, really tough start to the year. They got healthy and won five or six in a row. I think for us, for example, (for) three-quarters of the season we were healthy and really good—at times a dominant team. And then we played our last seven games without one of our starters and we’ve been a little different.”

--A unique mix of experience and inexperience, both lot of inexperience, on the floor and on the sidelines. Half the CAA’s head coaches have either been at the helm for four years or less or are new to the league this season (Matheny is in his sixth season at Elon). The other five have all been with their schools for at least seven seasons.

Among the CAA’s top 10 scorers this season were four seniors, only three of whom (Marcus Thornton, Kyle Anderson and Addison Spruill) played four years in the league. There were five juniors in the top 10, but three redshirted last year (Lee and Hofstra’s Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley). Freshman Elijah Bryant of Elon was the lone underclassmen in the top 10.

For most of the season, Hofstra’s starting lineup featured four players—Green, Tanksley, redshirt sophomore Brian Bernardi and junior college transfer Malik Nichols—who didn’t play for the Dutchmen last year.

“I think there’s a great balance between a few teams that have got some seniors (and) the young guys in this league (that) are very, very talented,” UNC Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts said, “And when you have, when you’ve got that balance , you can have some inconsistencies between teams. On any given night your young guys can be great and on certain nights they just play like young guys. So you get the chance to win some games and you get a chance to lose some games.”

In addition, defending champion Delaware lost its top four scorers (three to graduation, one to dismissal) while Towson, which finished second in the regular season and lost in the tournament semifinals, graduated its top four scorers.

:If you look back at who lost a lot from the year before—Towson was very senior-dominated and Delaware had a lot of seniors,” Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. “So the teams are more even from top to bottom. There’s no team that you look at and say ‘Oh wow, those guys are really dominating the league.’”

So was this season merely a cyclical hiccup, or the new normal? The next few years will determine that. In the meantime, spend the next three days wondering if the unpredictability can wreck havoc with a tournament in which only four teams seeded lower than third have reached the title game since 2000.

“This year, you can go one through six, one through seven or whatever you want,” Delaware coach Monte Ross said. It’s going to be a wild and crazy CAA Tournament.”

Friday, March 6, 2015

Just The Facts 2015: CAAT rematches of regular season finales

Can The Terminator get the real Guns N' Roses back together?

The Flying Dutchmen will see a familiar foe Saturday, when they open CAA Tournament play against James Madison at 2:30 PM. The Dutchmen’s regular season ended last Saturday with an 82-73 loss to the Dukes.

So that, of course, got me thinking not only about how a team fares when facing in the tournament an opponent that swept it during the season, but how teams fare when playing each other in the CAA regular season finale and then again in the first game of the CAA Tournament.

Welp, more bad news for the Dutchmen: There have been 13 such rematches in CAA history, and the team that won the regular season finale won the tourney game 10 times. James Madison and Hofstra have accounted for half of those victories: The Dukes swept the regular season finale and CAA Tournament opener three times (1992, 1993 and 2013) while the Dutchmen did it in 2009 and 2010.

Hofstra and James Madison have also been involved in the three times a team lost the finale but won the CAA Tournament rematch. The Dutchmen ended the 2001-02 season by losing to Towson before beating the Tigers in the tournament. James Madison knocked off Drexel in 2010 and was victimized in the tournament by Navy after beating the Midshipmen in the regular season finale way back in 1991.

So as you can see, this has only further muddied the already-confusing waters. Success! Below is the complete list of regular season sweeps and tourney rematches (or re-rematches).

George Mason vs. UNC Wilmington
FINALE: George Mason 99, UNC Wilmington 88
TOURNEY: George Mason 70, UNC Wilmington 67

James Madison vs. Navy
FINALE: James Madison 106, Navy 86
TOURNEY: Navy 85, James Madison 82***

James Madison vs. William & Mary
FINALE: James Madison 98, William & Mary 77
TOURNEY: James Madison 77, William & Mary 53

James Madison vs. George Mason
FINALE: James Madison 75, George Mason 59
TOURNEY: James Madison 60, George Mason 49

Old Dominion vs. William & Mary
FINALE: Old Dominion 94, William & Mary 70
TOURNEY: Old Dominion 83, William & Mary 58

Towson vs. Hofstra
FINALE: Towson 61, Hofstra 60
TOURNEY: Hofstra 72, Towson 52

VCU vs. William & Mary
FINALE: VCU 77, William & Mary 59
TOURNEY: VCU 62, William & Mary 59

Hofstra vs. UNC Wilmington
FINALE: Hofstra 88, UNC Wilmington 81
TOURNEY: Hofstra 79, UNC Wilmington 66

Hofstra vs. Georgia State
FINALE: Hofstra 87, Georgia State 74
TOURNEY: Hofstra 68, Georgia State 67

James Madison vs. Drexel
FINALE: Drexel 67, James Madison 64
TOURNEY: James Madison 77, Drexel 65

Drexel vs. Towson
FINALE: Drexel 66, Towson 63
TOURNEY: Drexel 75, Towson 69

James Madison vs. William & Mary
FINALE: James Madison 69, William & Mary 67
TOURNEY: James Madison 72, William & Mary 67

Northeastern vs. Drexel
FINALE: Northeastern 54, Drexel 52
TOURNEY: Northeastern 90, Drexel 81

***Navy played non-conference foe Army in its regular season finale in 1990-91.