Monday, February 21, 2011

Wright State Downs Hofstra With A Familiar CAA Feel

My blog first started during the 2005-06 CAA season.  And this current season has so many similar aspects to that season.  First, there was the potential for multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament.   In 2005-06 you had UNCW, George Mason and Hofstra.  In 2010-11, you have George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU.  Second, three of the four teams that had first round bye spots in 2005-06 - Mason, ODU and Hofstra have first round bye spots this season.

Finally, as Brian Mull pointed out to me in a reply tweet,  just like this season, most of the top players in 2005-06 were seniors.  There was Jose Juan Barea, Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn,  John Goldsberry, Vladimir Kuljanin, Alex Loughton, Isaiah Hunter, Aurimas Kieza, Adrian Uter and Nick George among others.  In 2010-11, you have Charles Jenkins, Cam Long, Frank Hassell, Ben Finney, Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Denzel Bowles, Chad Tomko, Chaisson Allen and Jawan Carter among others.

As Bally could tell you, everyone obviously remembers George Mason from that season.  But outside of UNCW faithful, hardcore CAA fans and college basketball journalists, many don't remember the CAA champion that season - UNC Wilmington.  Coach Brad Brownell led the Seahawks in 2005-06 to their third NCAA Tournament appearance in the past five seasons, two of which he was the head coach.    My friend Tieff and I were always impressed with Brownell's teams' fundamentals and especially their suffocating defense.  

But Brownell left under what seemed to be personal issues with the now former UNCW athletic director.  Brownell, his coaching staff and his best recruit, Vaughan Duggins all left for Wright State.  And sure enough, in his first season there, the Raiders won the Horizon League Tournament and made the NCAA Tournament.    Brownell's record in four seasons at Wright State was 84-45, including 49-21 in the Horizon League.   Brownell left Wright State for the head coach position at Clemson.  But Brownell's number one assistant at UNCW and Wright State, former associate head coach, Billy Donlon took over as head coach.  Duggins, Wright State's leading scorer at nearly 18 points per game, redshirted in the 2008-09 season due to injury and 2010-11 is his senior season.

In Donlon's first season as head coach, Wright State is first in the Horizon in scoring defense, three point FG percentage defense, turnover margin and free throw percentage, all the marks of a typical fundamentally sound, Brownell influenced team.  The Raiders are also second in three point FG percentage.  In a way, for a longtime CAA fan like me, it was Hofstra facing UNCW-Ohio. 

The Hofstra - Wright State game start was 11:00 AM on ESPNU.  My hotel was basically across the street from the Nutter Center, so I got there before 9:30 AM to make sure I got a good parking spot.  One of the parking attendants informed me that the doors wouldn't open until 10:00 AM.  So I sat in my car reading Seth Davis'  "When March Went Mad", a birthday present from my wife and kids.   I read the first two plus chapters and just like all good books, the time flew and it was 10:00 AM.  I got out of my car and headed into the Nutter Center.

When I walked in, it was free T-Shirt day and I got a white Wright State T-Shirt.  I guess it was their version of a "White-out".   The Nutter Center opened in 1990 and is really a big facility that can seat 12,000 people.  They host concerts, monster truck events and of course host Wright State Basketball.   When I got to my seat and looked up at the ceiling, it reminded me of the giant airplane hangars at the United States Air Force Museum.  But overall, I personally found it to be a nice arena with plenty of concession areas and friendly personnel to help you.

As it got closer to game time, I was impressed with the Wright State fans.  They all stood when their team came out on to the court and the WSU band played their fight song.  And they all stood again when their starting lineup was announced.   The 12,000 seat arena was about a half full, so when I saw the attendance at 5,073, which would be a sellout at Hofstra, it was a good turnout for an 11:00 am game.

The first thing I heard from the Wright State fans sitting around me was they were amazed at how Jenkins, Hofstra's star player who got a lot of national publicity for his late heroics vs W&M, was built like a linebacker.  I quickly struck up a conversation with a couple of them and they asked about Jenkins and the team itself.   

Wright State fans are very polite, friendly and know their basketball.  I think they also respected the fact that I knew their previous coach, Brownell from his CAA days and liked his style of basketball.  Plus, I also made points when I caught a T-Shirt during the T-shirt toss and gave it to a young Wright State fan.

The game started out with Hofstra jumping out to an early 4-0 lead as Charles Jenkins assisted on a Greg Washington jumper and Mike Moore hit a layup.   A Jenkins layup made the score 7-4 Hofstra.  After the first official TV timeout, the Pride had a three point lead and the game had all the makings of a typically close Hofstra game.

After the official TV timeout, Wright State came out and went on a 13-2 run over the next five plus minutes to go up 17-9 with 10:15 left.  Duggins did most of the damage, scoring seven of the points during that stretch with a dunk, a layup and a three pointer.   Hofstra got the score back to 19-15 on two Jenkins' free throws and Jenkins assisted on a Shemiye McLendon layup with 7:53 left.

But Hofstra was struggling to score as Wright State did a really good job of playing the passing lanes and stopping the Pride guards on potential drives to the basket.  As a result, Hofstra, who entering the game was second in the CAA in turnover margin, uncharacteristically turned the ball over eight times in the first half alone.  And when they weren't turning the ball over, Hofstra missed on all but one of their three point attempts in the first half.

Though they missed several open three point attempts, Wright State was stretching out the lead due to its good defense and their ability to hit free throws.  The Raiders were 8 of 8 from the line in the first half and they scored their last six points of the half from the charity stripe.  Duggins' two free throws put Wright State up 33-23.  But the Pride's lone three of the first half, a Brad Kelleher shot, made the score 33-26 at the half.

The Pride were fortunate to only be down seven at the half.  Despite shooting 1 of 9 from behind the arc and an uncharacteristic 11 of 18 from the FT line (Hofstra came in first in the CAA at 76 percent), Wright State shot an ugly 1 of 13 from behind the arc as well, though they had sixteen more FG attempts than Hofstra (35 to 19).  Also, Hofstra was the beneficiary of some very questionable foul calls in the first half much to the chagrin of the Raiders' faithful.  The worst call of the day was a foul call on the Raiders' Cooper Land, who clearly blocked Yves Jules' shot attempt.  The play was right in front of us in our section, and it was just a bad call.  Land had all ball. 

Any hope Hofstra fans had of a second half comeback similar to the one vs. William and Mary were quickly dashed at the start of the second frame.  In the first seven minutes, the Raiders outscored the Pride 23-9 as Wright State hit three 3 pointers and hit on all eight of their free throw attempts.  The score was 56-35 with 13:06 left in the game and the 5,000 plus Wright State fans roared in approval.

The officials slowed the game down significantly in the final twenty minutes of the game as the teams would combine for forty free throw attempts in the second half alone.  In fact, Hofstra would score sixteen of their thirty second half points from the free throw line (16 of 22 from the line in the second half).  And the Pride would actually have one more FG attempt in the second half, 23 to the Raiders' 22.

The problem was that the Raiders would shoot 14 of 22 from the field in the second half and 15 of 18 from the line in the second half.   Wright State also held Hofstra to 7 of 23 from the field in the second half and 33 percent overall for the game.  Also, the Pride, the third best team in the CAA in assist to turnover ratio, only had four assists and twelve turnovers, compared to the Raiders' fifteen assists to four turnovers.  When you combine those statistics, no wonder the final score was Wright State 82 Hofstra 56.

But what was most impressive was Wright State's Duggins.  He did everything Saturday morning.  He scored  a career high 31 points on layups, hit jumpers and posted up various Hofstra defenders, including fouling out Hofstra's best defensive guard, Yves Jules.  Jules had no answer for Duggins, who shot 10 of 18 from the field and was a perfect 10 of 10 from the line.  He also helped out in guarding Jenkins, who only had eight FG attempts, though he did have fourteen FT attempts (hitting 12 of them).  Jenkins was held to 18 points, five under his season average.

Wright State won convincingly without its third leading scorer, Troy Tabler, who scores 11.6 points per game.  If that last name is familiar to old school baseball fans, it should be.  He is the son of Pat Tabler, former Cleveland Indian, most well known for his ability to hit with the bases loaded.   Tabler has been out due to a fractured finger.  One of the Wright State fans I became friendly with told me that he should be back for their last regular season game vs. Detroit before the start of the Horizon League Tournament. 

For Hofstra, though they didn't play very well, they still have two games in conference left to improve on their position for the CAA Tournament.  They are at UNCW on Wednesday, then finish at home vs. Delaware on Saturday.  They are guaranteed to finish no lower than fourth and have clinched a bye spot.  But they could finish as high as second if they win out and ODU and VCU each lose on of their two remaining games.   To do so, they will need to play much better than the game vs. Wright State.

As I left, the Wright State fans who I struck up conversations with wished me a safe trip back to New York.  I responded with a thanks and told them that they will be fine in the Horizon once Tabler comes back.  And I really believe they will be if they keep playing defense like they did on Saturday.   I felt like I had gone back in Sherman and Peabody's Way Back Machine and saw UNCW circa 2006.  Only this time, Vaughan Duggins played the combined part of John Goldsberry and T.J. Carter.

Then I made my way back to my car and headed back out on I-675 as I headed east back to New York.  The drive went smoothly for the first several hours on I-70 and I-76/Penn Turnpike.  As I made my way on I-81, there was a high wind warning in the eastern part of Pennsylvania and New York.  Sure enough, I hit a lot of seemingly 50 mph crosswinds on I-81 that made large tractor trailer trucks sway in and out of their lanes.  For safety's sake, I decided to get off at a Hershey exit at around 8:00 PM and stayed overnight at what turned out to be a very noisy Fairfield Inn.   

I left the non quiet confines of Fairfield Inn at 2:15 AM very early Sunday morning and got back to my house at 5:15 AM.   Someone asked me Saturday afternoon after whether or not it was really worth to drive all the way to Dayton and back, especially after Hofstra lost.   I responded that despite the Hofstra loss, it was a fun trip.  I got to see the terrific U.S. Air Force museum, had a good dinner at a fun place (South Park Tavern) and saw good live college basketball at a venue I had never been at before, the Nutter Center.  

So of course, I would do a ten hour drive long as I had someone come with me and split up the driving.   At 45 years old, I really can't do 9 1/2 hour solo trips straight any more (though I did it Friday morning).  The trip back Saturday evening was a struggle and even if there wasn't high winds in Pennsylvania,  I probably would have stopped in Hershey or Bethlehem anyhow.  

The next road trip is in less than two weeks.  It's the annual six hour road trip to Richmond for the CAA Tournament.  This time Tieff is driving, and it will be nice to be a passenger for a change.  Ten live college basketball games in three days (and it will be eleven in four days if Hofstra makes the CAA Tournmament Final).  You can't beat that.

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