Saturday, December 23, 2017

Back to the Future - Philly 70's Style

When Hofstra - Villanova was scheduled earlier this year, Hofstra fans, myself included, thought this was a neutral site game.  I even wrote on Wednesday about "Wright Comes Home", about how Jay Wright was coming back to the Long Island area,  with a team of his playing at the NYCB Live at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum again after seventeen years.

Well Wright did come home...or came to a home game.   Turns out last night's FS1 nationally televised game was a Villanova "home game" due to a $60 million renovation on Villanova's home court, Finneran Pavilion.   Problem was that the "home game" was played in Uniondale, literally right across the street from the road team's school, Hofstra.

After having dinner with my good friends Tieff and Mal, along with my older son, aka my color analyst Matthew at Houlihan's on Merrick Avenue in Westbury, we took the five minute drive over to the Coliseum.  When we got out of the car and made the walk to the front entrance of the Coliseum, we were struck by something fifteen minutes prior to the game starting time - Really long lines to enter the building.   Turns out that they had just opened the gates a few minutes prior to us getting there.  

As Hofstra fate would have it, we literally ran into Jerry Beach's MUCH better half, Michelle, and their very cute daughter Molly.  Molly also happens to be really awesome, because she busts her dad's chops all the time (Keep it up Molly!). As we chatted, we noticed the line we were on was really slow.   Mal first made the move over to end of the next line and within a minute caught up to us.   So we made the move over and got in to the building before many people that we were behind in our original line.

That right there should have told me that we were in for a surreal night.

We just got into our section in time for the national anthem.  Then we took our seats in Section 224, Row 6, along with many other Hofstra fans.  It made sense since I got the tickets through Hofstra.  I would see long time Hofstra faithful friends Geoff Sorensen and Joe Geyer as Hofstra was first announced as the visiting team.   Tieff made a quick reference to the location of the Hofstra cheerleaders, who were basically banished with the mascots Kate and Willy way behind the press box behind the Hofstra basket.   Then Villanova was introduced to the majority of Nova fans.   The announced attendance of 7,892 was probably 80-20 Nova fans.

Hofstra started out strong early as who else, Justin Wright-Foreman, scored several baskets and the Pride actually had a 9-7 lead four and a half minutes into the game.  The Pride were only down one , 17-16, with a little less than twelve and a half minutes remaining in the first half when the Wildcats went on a 12-0 run to go up 29-16. and never looked back the rest of the game.  The Hofstra guards,  Eli Pemberton in particular,  struggled with Nova's zone trap at mid court.  Hofstra committed fifteen turnovers as opposed to Nova's seven on the game.

As for the "home team's arena", in August 2015, Forest City Enterprises, run by Bruce Ratner,  renovated the Nassau Coliseum for $89 million.  The renovation included a new metal facade,  renovation of the interior and reduction of capacity to 13,000 seats.  

Let me tell you was not $89 million well spent.   The front facade looks like an alien ship landed in a parking lot in Uniondale.  Inside, I don't know what was more 70's retro, the faux wood paneling in front of the seating sections or the primitive scoreboard.  And they did nothing on the biggest issue with Nassau Coliseum over the years, the lack of space in the concourse aisle way.   All that was missing was Garry Howatt, J.P. Parise, Eddie Westfall and Gerry Hart to come out suited up in the Islanders' uniforms (Google their names). 

No wonder New York State has approved a new arena for the New York Islanders, who are unhappy with their "home" at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, another Bruce Ratner run building, at the Belmont Park site.  

Here's a suggestion for New York State officials for the new Belmont Park arena - Do not give the bid to Forest City Enterprises.

Back to the game.  During the media timeouts, the media replays were run by NBC 3 Sports Philly.  One media timeout promotion was run by the "Philly Pretzel Factory".  Given all that and the Coliseum's 70's retro look, all that was missing was Sly Stallone with a gray sweatshirt and we would be in Philadelphia circa 1976.

One play epitomized the game for Hofstra.   With about eight seconds left in the first half, Hofstra messed up the inbounds pass and eventually turned the ball over with about 1.8 seconds left in the half.  Jay Wright called timeout to call a play.   It turned out to be a long three pointer by Phil Booth as the buzzer sounded.   Nova was up 52-31 at the half.

In the second half, Hofstra made a concerted effort to beat the trap and get the ball on the block to their bigs Rokas Gustys and later Hunter Sabety.   It was successful in that Hofstra outscored Villanova 36-28 in the paint.   But the deficit was too big to overcome and the Wildcats were just too efficient on offense. Despite both teams shooting forty eight percent for the game, Nova had thirteen more shot attempts, making six more field goals.   The Wildcats were amazing from beyond three, shooting 16 of 34 from beyond the arc to Hofstra only shooting 5 of 16 from three. 

All that was left was Nova clearing it's bench and bringing in "The GPA Team" as Tieff called it.  Nova would win 95-71 in convincing fashion.  Nova had five players in double figures, led by Mikal Bridges with twenty points and freshman Omari Spellman's double double of nineteen points and ten rebounds.   Here's the scary thing about #1 Nova - None of their top six players in minutes played last night are a senior.  If no one leaves the team early for the NBA draft, they will all be back next season. 

For Hofstra, they actually played really well, despite the twenty four point loss.   They shot the ball well on offense and held their own on the rebounding end.   Nova was just too efficient on offense. Had they played this well Wednesday they would not have lost to Manhattan.  Wright-Foreman had a terrific game with twenty five points on 9 of 18 shooting.  He more than held his own against an elite team.   Gustys narrowly missed a double double with eleven points and eight rebounds. Despite having seven points under his sixteen points per game season average and seven points, Pemberton had five assists and Kenny Wormley had five assists as well.

All in all it was a fun night, but a suggestion for Hofstra for next time if they play Villanova.   Make it a neutral site game and play it at MSG, not in East Philadelphia, aka Uniondale.   The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum needs to be like the 1970's.  A distant memory.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Wright Comes Home

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright is returning to home, well his former home on Long Island, when he brings in his #1 Wildcats to face his former team the Hofstra Flying Dutchmen.  OK, Hofstra is now the Pride, but they were still the Flying Dutchmen when Wright was the head coach.

Jay Wright started his basketball career playing alongside Carson Puriefoy Sr. at Bucknell (Carson Puriefoy Jr, Carson's son, was the star guard for the 2015-16 Stony Brook team that went 26-7 and went to the NCAA Tournament). After his playing career was over, Wright became an assistant coach at D3 University of Rochester, which he followed up as an assistant coach at another #CAAHoops school, Drexel University.  Then in 1987, he became an assistant for Rollie  at Villanova until 1992. Massimino then took the UNLV head coaching job in 1992 when Jerry Tarkanian was forced to resign.  Wright followed him there for two years.

In 1994, Wright became the head coach of Hofstra, a school that had just joined the America East Conference, having moved from some conference that only Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch seems to know about.  The Flying Dutchmen had not been to a NCAA Tournament since they made two straight NCAA Tournaments in that supposed East Coast Conference in 1976 and 1977 under Coach Roger Gaeckler and star players Richie Laurel and John Irving, each of whom were later drafted by the NBA. 

The first two seasons under Wright, 1994-95 and 1995-96, were a struggle for the then Flying Dutchmen, as they won only five conference games each season.  Then in the 1996-97 season, Hofstra improved to a 9-9 conference record and in Wright's fourth season, the Flying Dutchmen would have their first winning record in years, going 19-12 and 11-7 in the America East in the 1997-98 season.   Those first four seasons were merely "Vincent's Shellfish Tower" at Little Vincent's Clam Bar in Carle Place compared to the main dishes in store the next three seasons.

The 1998-99 season was the "Strangled Priest" dish, as Hofstra would win its first of two ECAC Holiday Festivals at Madison Square Garden (when the Holiday Festival still meant something) en route to going  22-10 overall and 14-4 in the America East.  The Flying Dutchmen would receive a NIT berth, losing to Rutgers 58-45.   Then in 1999-2000, a season comparable to the "Trio Feast", Hofstra would again win the ECAC Holiday Festival, then go 16-2 in conference and finish first in the America East. 

The 2000 America East Championship Game was played at Hofstra's brand new David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex, aka "The Mack", aka "Hofstra Arena".  It had just opened in January 2000, replacing the Physical Fitness Center as the home for Hofstra Men's and Women's Basketball,  among other sports. 

I remember the game well because I was in a hotel bar in Washington D.C watching the game on ESPN, sneaking out of a conference I was attending.  Led by America East Tournament MVP  Speedy Claxton, Hofstra downed Delaware 74-69 to win the America East Championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.  Along with the win, there were three other memorable moments.   The first one was seeing the start of the broadcast show the "Delaware Fightin Blue Hens vs. Hofstra Flying Dutchmen" on the screen.  Talk about two distinct team mascots.   Another memorable moment was when the bartender asked me "Where is Hofstra?" Then I had to explain where Hofstra was on Long Island, much to a somewhat confused bartender.  Finally, seeing the Hofstra fans storm the court after winning the game, it made me determined.  The next year, I am going to be at the America East Championship Game.

Hofstra would eventually lose to Oklahoma State in the first round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.   Claxton was drafted in the first round of the 2000 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.  But Wright and the rest of the now Hofstra Pride, as they changed their name to April of 2000 would return to defend their championship with "Grandma's Sunday Sauce", their best season yet.   The Pride would just miss out on winning their third straight ECAC Holiday Festival, losing a heartbreaker to Penn State in the championship game.  After that, led by eventual NBA player Norman Richardson and now NBA assistant coach Jason Hernandez,  the Pride dominated the America East again, going 16-2 again and once again playing Delaware at The Mack for the championship game. 

This time I was present with my friends Tieff and Mal to see  Hofstra down Delaware 68-54 in front of a sold out crowd, completing a trifecta of double digit wins in the America East Tournament.   What was most impressive was the Pride's defense under Wright, forcing Delaware to use the entire shot clock on many of the Blue Hens' possessions.  In fact, Hofstra held Delaware scoreless the final three minutes and forty six seconds of the game.  Impressive.

Hofstra's reward was a #13 seed in the 2001 Tournament as the Pride took on Steve Lavin's UCLA Bruins.  The Pride were up 33-29 at the half before the Bruins came back to win 61-48.  It culminated a three season stretch that saw Hofstra post a 72-22 overall record, which included a 46-8 regular season record in the America East.

Little did anyone know that it would be the last appearance Hofstra has made in a NCAA Tournament.

Then the job at Villanova became available.  Wright took the job and Wright's longtime friend and assistant coach, Tom Pecora took over at Hofstra, as the Pride would leave the friendly northeast confines of the America East for the very Virginia based Colonial Athletic Association (and thus Beach's hashtag #SouthernBias came about).

Wright's first three seasons at Nova resulted in three straight NIT bids for the Wildcats.  In his fourth season, the 2004-05 season, Wright's team broke through, making the NCAA Tournament and reaching the Sweet Sixteen.   At that same time, Hofstra under Pecora would make it's first of three straight NIT berths.  The Cats would make the Elite Eight in 2005-06, the same season Hofstra was snubbed from the NCAA Tournament.   Eventually, Wright would bring Nova to the Final Four in the 2008-09 season.  Seven years later, Wright would break through the glass ceiling, as the Wildcats won the NCAA National Championship in a thrilling 77-74 game at the buzzer on a Kris Jenkins three pointer.

Since leaving Hofstra, Jay Wright has won three hundred and ninety six games and have made the NCAA Tournament twelve out of the past thirteen seasons.  His Wildcats have been the cat's meow in the Big East the past four seasons, accumulating a ridiculous 63-9 record in Big East play. 

Meanwhile, Hofstra is going on its fourth head coach.  They have only made CAA two conference tournament finals with one regular season championship.  #SouthernBias has not been hospitable to the Pride, neither was the NCAA Tournament Committee back in 2006.   It's been sixteen years since Hofstra went to the big dance.

Friday, Jay Wright comes back home to the Island, when the Wildcats play Hofstra at the newly renovated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.  The last time Hofstra played a Big East team in the Nassau Coliseum was ironically under Jay Wright in the 2000-01 season.  The Pride "stunned" St John's 86-80.   For me the stunning moment is that Jerry Beach's all time favorite German center, Lars Grubler, played twenty eight minutes in the game.

It was the first win ever by Hofstra against St John's.  Before that win, the Pride had lost nineteen straight to the Red Storm.  His Villanova team is now first in the national rankings.  As Beach also noted on Twitter, it's also the first time that an active NCAA Tournament winning head coach has faced his previous employer with the head coach's team being ranked #1.

Wright was always good at setting firsts.

Yes, Jay Wright is from Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Bucks County is also home to the terrific Bungee Jumpers, one of the best halftime performance groups I have ever seen.   And Villanova is right in his backyard.   But Hofstra is where Wright first cut his teeth as a head coach.  To longtime Flying Dutchmen fans, Hofstra will always be home for Jay Wright.

Wright's not the only one going home Friday night. It turns out I will be back in New York visiting family and friends for the holidays.   You know where I will be, Wright?

Oh yeah.  It's good to be back.  Welcome home, Jay.