Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The 2010-11 Hofstra Men's Basketball Season in Retrospect - Part I

It was two months ago Sunday since Hofstra played in its final game of the 2010-11 season, a first round loss to Evansville in the CBI.  But the first season under Mo Cassara had a lot more triumphs than defeats.  And considering how the 2010-11 season started, it was truly an amazing ride.

The 2010-11 season really started in April of last year when Tom Pecora left the comforts of Hempstead for Rose Hill.   Along came Tim Welsh, whose 30 day stay ended in resignation after being arrested for DWI.  Faced with the possibility of completely starting from scratch, Hofstra Athletic Director Jack Hayes instead turned to Cassara, one of Welsh's assistant coaches and offered him the position after a meeting with University President Stuart Rabinowitz.  It turned out to be a terrific move.

But from the start, Cassara and his assistants Steve Demeo, Wayne Morgan (a key addition having an experienced former head coach on the bench), and Allen Griffin were playing with a short deck.  Pecora had already taken his four recruits with him to Fordham.    Then two first team All Rookie CAA players Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams transferred.   The coaching staff did a yeoman's job quickly bringing in four recruits, three of whom would see significant minutes during the season - Dwan McMillan, Shemiye McLendon and Stephen Nwaukoni.

But Cassara would be dealt with another loss as senior starter/sixth man Nathaniel Lester would tear his quad during training and be redshirted for the season.   Finally, Cassara would play even another man short for the first eight games of the season as guard Brad Kelleher got an additional eight game suspension by the NCAA after being disallowed to play his junior season for signing an application form.

Cassara though developed an immediate friendship with Hofstra's best player, the now three time reigning Haggerty Award winner and now two time CAA Player of the Year, Charles Jenkins.  The two of them would have to guide a relatively young team through the entire season.

The shorthanded Pride won their first game handily against Division III Farmingdale State before heading to the Puerto Rico Tip Off.   In their first round game against North Carolina on national TV, Jenkins matched heralded Tar Heel freshman Harrison Barnes shot for shot in the first half before North Carolina ran away with the game in a 107-63 win.  Then came the 2nd round loser's bracket game vs. Western Kentucky.  Hofstra led most of the way and was up 52-39 with 3:50 left.  But the Hilltoppers' press caused numerous Pride turnovers the rest of the way.  Hofstra was outscored 23-8 the rest of the game and Western Kentucky came away with a 62-60 win.   The Pride finished up the Puerto Rico tipoff losing to Nebraska.

This was Cassara's first true test as a coach.  How do get your team to respond after a rough pre-season tournament?  The answer was ride your horse, Charles Jenkins.  First, they would defeat comedic and basketball royalty in defeating Wagner.  The Pride's second win in a row came as a result of a solid defensive effort on the road defeating Rider.  It was followed by a convincing home win over conference rival Towson.

Then came one of  Charles Jenkins' many season defining moments as he and Mike Moore were the ultimate two man duo at Binghamton.  Moore kept Hofstra in the game in the first half with 15 points.  But in the second half, it was all number 22.  Jenkins scored 17 points over a five and half minute span to rally the Pride from a double digit deficit.  He then scored his 30th and 31st points of the second half on a layup with six seconds left to force overtime.  Jenkins final two points, which gave him forty on the night, combined with Mike Moore's OT points gave Hofstra the win.  Jenkins and Moore combined for sixty eight of the Pride's eighty-nine points as Jenkins and company that night managed to overheat my Macbook Pro, which was playing the streaming video of the game.

After a close loss at home to eventual Sun Belt regular season champion Florida Atlantic on Brad Kelleher's Free to Play for Hofstra Day, the Pride would bounce back with a win at Manhattan, where Jenkins got his 2000th career point.and Defiantly Dutch learned that you have to get to a Manhattan game early, otherwise you have to park in the next borough.   Then came a home win over Holy Cross, where Antoine Agudio was there to see Jenkins receive a special commerative basketball for getting his 2000th career point.  But the 2010 calendar year ended on sour note as Hofstra was dominated by Iona at the Hynes Center, losing to the Gaels 87-62.  Heading into 2011, the Pride's record stood at 7-5.

One of the marks of a good team is how it responds to adversity.  After losing by twenty five points to a local rival, Hofstra was staring straight into the barrel of a gun the first of week of January.  CAA conference season was truly starting, and the Pride had to play three conference games in six days.   And it was truly a gauntlet.  The first game was at Drexel, a team that had earlier won at nationally ranked Louisville on national TV.  Then it was a home game two days later against George Mason, a team Hofstra hadn't beat since 2007.  Finally, there was a road game at Northeastern.  The last time they played the Huskies, the Pride lost to them in double overtime in the 2010 CAA Quarterfinals, a game Hofstra should have won in regulation.  This was a true test of the Pride.

And the Pride passed the test with flying colors.  First at the DAC, Coach Cassara made what I thought was one of his three best coaching moves of the season.   Cassara played a zone defense against Drexel, except that he had sophomore guard Yves Jules play matchup against the Dragons' best players, shooting guard Chris Fouch.  Jules held Fouch to 3 of 10 shooting from the field.

In October of last year at the Hofstra Season Ticket Holder Reception, Coach Cassara stated that David Imes had been a player that really impressed him during the initial practices.  Imes had been seldom used in his freshman season under Tom Pecora.  But Imes became a starter for Cassara and he came through big time against the Dragons.  Imes scored twenty points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Hofstra to an impressive 75-69 road win over Drexel.

Then came the home game vs. Mason.   As most of you know, the two teams have a recent history that dates back to 2006.  The Pride hadn't beat the Patriots since 2007.   But the Mason streak would end that Wednesday night.  It didn't seem that way early on as GMU took a 20-10 lead early on Hofstra.  But the Pride would outscore them 29-15 the rest of the half and go up four at halftime.  In the second half, again Mason went up in the beginning, due to an 8-0 run.  But again Hofstra responded with a 14-0 run of their own and never looked back.  The Pride gave the Patriots their worst regular season conference loss, an 87-74 drubbing, much to the delight of Defiantly Dutch. It gave Hofstra sole possession of first place in the CAA at 3-0.  Jenkins had 32 points, but four other players also scored in double figures for the Pride.

Hofstra had a chance for a sweep of gauntlet week at Northeastern, always a tough place to play for the Blue and Gold. But again, Hofstra would have balanced scoring.  All five Pride starters scored in double digits and Hofstra came away with an impressive 76-67 win.   The Pride shot 53 percent from the field and 90 percent from the line in the win.  Hofstra finished the First Gauntlet Week at 4-0.

The Pride then had a road game vs. Towson right before an all important home game vs. Old Dominion.  Five years ago to that very day, Hofstra played at Towson.  Gary Neal basically singlehandely beat the Pride down the stretch of that game, which likely cost Hofstra a tie for first place in the CAA in the 2005-06 season.   With a chance for redemption, the Pride came out and led from start to finish, winning handily 74-60.  What impressed me the most about the win was the Towson radio announcers commenting how well Hofstra moved the ball around again the Towson zone.  It was emblematic of how the Pride were playing in January.  Good ball movement, balanced scoring and excellent ball possession, all marks of a good team.

Hofstra was now 5-0 in conference heading into their home game vs. Old Dominion, the defending CAA champions, who were 3-2 going into the game.  The Pride came out on fire and looked like they were going to blow the Monarchs out of the building with a 12-0 start to the game.  But ODU played their "ground and pound" game to perfection, rallying back and eventually wearing down Hofstra to take a two point halftime lead.  In the second half, led by eventual all First Team CAA forward Frank Hassell, the Monarchs held off the Pride and eventually won 75-64.  It was Hofstra's first loss in conference and ODU was only one game behind them.

Needing to rebound from the loss to the Monarchs, The Pride would struggle at home with their next opponent, the UNCW Seahawks.   UNC -Wilmington played with much more heart than they did a year ago when Charles Jenkins' nationally recognized eight point play doomed Benny Ross.  Hofstra used a 14-2 second half run to erase a five point deficit.  In a game that I will always remember for the T-shirt toss and a bad intentional foul call, the Pride would end up winning 66-57 to improve to 6-1 in conference.

Later that week, Hofstra traveled to Williamsburg to take on a William and Mary team that was a lot better than their record indicated.   The Tribe led a good part of the game but somehow the Pride kept the game close at halftime.  Later in the second half, Charles Jenkins put Hofstra up to stay and they held off W&M for a hard earned 67-64 road win.   Hofstra was now 7-1 in conference with one more game left at home before they reached the halfway point.

And what a game to end the first half of the regular conference season.  At the Mack, Hofstra took on a very talented James Madison team, led by another eventual all First Team CAA forward Denzel Bowles, in front of a very lively Lions Den student section on ESPN Regional.   Little did the Hofstra fans in attendance and those watching the game on TV know that they were going to see another overtime classic from two teams with a history of overtime games.  The Pride went out to a 13-5 lead only to see the Dukes storm back with a 15-0 run to take a nine point lead at the half.  JMU extended the lead to 50-36 before Hofstra rallied to cut the deficit to three with eleven and a half minutes left.

Madison would again extend the lead to eleven, 69-58 with six and a half minutes left , but again Hofstra would rally and force overtime on two free throws by Shemiye McLendon.  Then in overtime, with the Hofstra PA system playing "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, the Pride would be up three late in the OT period.   It was here that Cassara made the second of his best three coaching moves of the season, having McLendon foul Julius Wells before he could get a shot off.  Wells hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second.  Jenkins, who had 32 points on the night, got the rebound and celebrated with the Hofstra Lions Den as the Pride won 92-90 in overtime.

In exciting fashion, Hofstra finished the first half of the conference season at 8-1, 14-6 overall, tied for first place in the CAA.  A team that had started January at 7-5 won seven of their next eight games.   The second half of the conference season awaited them, as did a game on national TV vs. an 8-1 VCU team for sole possession of first place.   What also awaited the Pride was their most difficult challenge of the season.   How they answered that challenge will be in Part II of this retrospect.

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