"We have to distrust each other. It's our only defense against betrayal." - Tennesee Williams
Game #9-126: Wagner at Hofstra PrideDecember 4, 2012 7:00 pm
Mack Sports Complex
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - With his team struggling against Wagner's pressure and trailing for the first time in the second half Tuesday night, Hofstra coach Mo Cassara looked down his bench for a possible solution to the growing dilemma.
He stared for a second, clapped his hands, and then turned his head back to the game on the court in front of him, the temporary bout of amnesia about who was sitting with him seeming to quickly pass.
Cassara's Pride fell 52-44 to a less-than-whole Wagner squad that is still trying to find its identity in a somewhat gruesome spectacle in front of a minuscule crowd at the Mack Center. For most coaches, it was the kind of outing that keeps them up at night wondering what they can do to avoid a repeat.
For Cassara, though, it might be the most enjoyable two hours of his week.
Erik Erikson was one of the most influential child psychologists of the 20th century, and came up with eight stages of psychosocial development
, the first of which was "Trust vs. Mistrust", in which an infant learns whether they can trust that people that care for them.
So hopefully by age two, we've figured out we can trust our parents, at least with the basics of life.
Soon after, according to Erikson, we're supposed to learn right from wrong, but life is never as smooth as psychology books or self-help manuals make it out to be. We've all been hurt, all been betrayed by people we trusted at one point or another in our lives. Sometimes we bounce back quickly, sometimes we recover quickly, sometimes we're never the same.
Through all the pomp and circumstance of college
basketball games, from the boosters to the cheerleaders to the television contracts, at the heart it's still about the young men that take the court and represent the institutions they attend. The compound word student-athlete has been reduced to a joke in many circles, and rightfully so, but it is these young men that decide the fortunes of an entire program.
Cassara was hired three years ago
in somewhat bizarre circumstances. Hofstra gave the job to Tim Welsh after Tom Pecora, who left to go to Fordham after some moderate success with the Pride (more than he's had at Fordham in the Atlantic-10, at least). Welsh was a sensible pick, having previously been at Providence, and having plenty of experience.
But less than a month after taking the job, Welsh resigned after a DWI arrest
by Nassau County police. Hofstra somewhat surprisingly handed the reigns over to Cassara, a 36-year-old Welsh assistant with no Division I head coaching experience.
In the press conference to announce his hiring
, athletic director Jack Hayes said, "Mo has quickly gained the trust of our student-athletes and athletic department staff and we are delighted that he will lead our program in 2010-11 and beyond." He added that he thought 20-win seasons, being in the top of the Colonial Athletic Association, and challenging for NCAA berths were the goal. It might have been mentioned somewhere about student-athletes and work off the court, but it wasn't recorded for posterity.
It never is. It's never important.
Cassara was 21-12 in his first season, 14-4 in the CAA (two games better than national semifinalist VCU), and got a contract extension, although he did it largely with Pecora's players. Last season, the Pride were just 10-22, a dismal 3-15 in CAA play
Tough, but Cassara just needed some players. Unfortunately, the schools we cover don't include schools like Kentucky and Kansas and North Carolina, where they can pick from the healthiest of the young flowers before anyone else gets a grab. Often at places like Hofstra, you have to either work hard to find ones that no one has seen or you have to take ones with flaws and hope they bloom anyway.
He already had transfers Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, from UConn, and Taran Buie, coming in from Penn State. He added Shaquille Stokes from Hawaii, who was given a hardship waiver to play this season. Three other freshmen: Dallas Anglin, Jimmy Hall, and Kentrell Washington were in great position to help right away.
College basketball coaches have to put their faith and trust in 18 and 19-year-old kids, even in cases where their background (both academic and personal) may be questionable. With only five players on the floor, one or two can make all the difference between a team in obscurity in the middle of a conference pack, or one that's on ESPN and CBS in March in the NCAA Tournament (and, God forbid, you win a game, look out).
Deep down in most places, even if publicly they won't admit it, that's what colleges want out of their Division I basketball teams. Exposure. Publicity. A chance to get the school's name out to the masses. Hofstra? Yea, that's the school on Long Island, right? That's why a guy like Cassara is given a contract extension. And that's why he's under so much pressure to win. Just like countless others who we don't see every day.
Buie and Coombs-McDaniel began the season with a four-game suspension for "violating team rules"
. Not good, but that happens sometimes.
Then, the bombshell. Stokes, Anglin, Hall, and Washington were all arrested last week
and charged with stealing $20,000 worth of electronic equipment from fellow students over a month period. The details were not only disturbing, but confounding. Court records show that Hall admitted he was trying to set up group sex with females while Stokes was grabbing what he could in other rooms.
Hall told the cops he was sorry, but he "needed the money".
There were strong rumors
that the quartet committed the ultimate betrayal and stole from Cassara as well, fueled somewhat by police who said, "draw your own conclusions" when it was mentioned that Cassara also has his house robbed. Hofstra was quick to deny the story, saying that the incident with Cassara happened in May, well before any of the players arrested even came on campus.
I'll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.
There's not much room for gray area in our modern world, especially in athletic endeavors. Either you won or you lost. At the end of the day, your record tells the tale.
Those four players will likely never set foot at Hofstra University again, three of them had bail set high enough that they spent at least a couple of days in jail.
It's easy to condemn and call them "thugs" and whatever else we've seen on message boards and comment sections. Hall's "money" comment is laughable on the surface, but consider an 18-year-old living in the New York City area, especially a Division I college basketball player. You know and I know that he's blessed beyond belief to be where he is and that he should be more than grateful. But the teenage mind doesn't really work that way all the time.
By all accounts, Cassara is a nice man who is enthusiastic and humble about his job. I couldn't find any detractors in the Mack Center crowd (I didn't look all that hard) before tip-off, and he's been well received by the Hofstra community, including school president Stuart Rabinowitz (hence the contract extension).
But we're all responsible in some ways for the people we associate ourselves with, aren't we? Buie's transfer was partly due to the fact that he was arrested twice in State College. Hall was booted twice from Bob Hurley's St. Anthony's team in New Jersey, with Hurley sounding less than surprised (although disappointed) that Hall found his way into trouble once again at Hofstra.
When Cassara agreed to give the players he recruited to Hofstra, he was also inviting them into the community at large, and now they've not only embarrassed themselves, they've given a black eye to the school, the basketball program, and to Cassara.
And he knows it.
His now undermanned team battled gamely Tuesday, adversity isn't new to them, having already worked around a presidential debate
this season. Hofstra led 24-19 after an ugly first half, and even after Wagner started to pull away, Buie showed the potential that once made him one of the top recruits in Penn State history, scoring six points in less than a minute (a monumental feat in this game) to bring the Pride with 36-35 with 9:45 left.
But it wasn't to be, as Wagner never trailed again in a 52-44 victory for first-year coach Bashir Mason, the youngest Division I head coach in the country. It's been a work in progress for Mason as well, trying to replace Danny Hurley who won 25 games last season. Wagner's three WINS have featured 38, 48 (in OT), and now 52 points, respectively. But his problems are at least basketball related.
Cassara wishes he were so lucky at this point. In a way, this game was a metaphor for the situation he and Hofstra face. They played hard, made some big plays, but in the end, it's a loss at home to a team trying to find its way in the NEC, not at the level of the CAA, even without VCU.
Fortunately for you, Hofstra is home to one of the best mid-major blogs going, so if you want some great in-depth opinions and perspective on the situation, check out Jerry Beach and Defiantly Dutch
The larger point for us at Mid-majority to me is that Cassara's situation demonstrates the dilemma we face, even below the Red Line. We don't like to talk about it, but if you're a head coach, you need to win. And if not now, soon. Or you're out of work.
To win, you need good basketball players. And to get good college basketball players, you need to recruit good high school players, who are 16 and 17 years old when they're committing to four years at your school, which you have inevitably told them will be the greatest time of their lives, both on and off the court.
And so, I'm sure the "basketball goggles" go on for some coaches. Not the best work ethic? We can change that. Gets in trouble from time to time? We'll keep an extra set of eyes on him.
I mean, did you see that kid's crossover? His wingspan? His AAU coach says we can trust him, that he's just a teenager, he'll grow up.
As he came out for the game, Cassara got a high-five from some kids and a big sympathetic hug from a supporter that made her way down to the floor.
As the game ended, though, he went through the handshake line, looked to the sky and walked into the Hofstra locker room alone.
Ironically, his future may depend on the players he has left. Now 3-6 with some tough games before conference play starts, if the Pride - who should get injured Coombs-McDaniel back sometime soon - can grab some wins and make a run in the CAA, maybe Cassara gets some sympathy from the powers that be. Buie showed he has immense talent at times, Stevie Mejia is a senior point guard, stranger things have happened.
(You have to love stories like senior captain Matt Grogan, a walk-on who scored seven points for the second straight game, and was Hofstra's leading scorer in the first half.)
But there weren't many positives coming from the crowd on the way out. The season ticket holders next to me bemoaned the woeful crowd (announced at 1,239, but was really probably half that at best), with no student presence at all.
"Well, I guess we got lucky with Jay Wright," one of them said. "And Pecora was pretty good. You can't get lucky every time. But we need to get some kind of name or up-and-coming young coach in here. This isn't going to get it done."
Wright led Hofstra to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001 before going to Villanova, where he's been since, leaving his assistant, Pecora in charge for the next nine years. (Ironically, both Wright and Pecora have recently been under fire at their respective new jobs of late.)
As I got to the top of the stands, I saw some youth players who played at halftime congregating near the locker room door, probably oblivious to what had happened to the team in the last week. They knocked, but no one answered.
"C'mon, Mom, two more minutes."
The door never opened. Some cheerleaders were walking by, so they got their autograph and called it a night.
Hopefully for Cassara, that's not an omen. WAGNER 52, at HOFSTRA 44
WAGNER 3-4 (0-0) -- K. Ortiz 5-11 5-6 15; J. Thompson 0-5 2-2 2; M. Burton 0-7 0-0 0; J. Williams 1-7 0-0 2; E. Fanning 0-4 4-4 4; M. Moody 5-7 2-2 12; O. Parker 3-5 3-3 9; N. Folahan 2-2 1-3 5; D. Anderson 0-2 0-0 0; H. Naurais 0-2 0-0 0; L. Burnett 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 17-53 17-20 52.
HOFSTRA 3-6 (0-0) -- T. Buie 5-14 4-7 16; S. Mejia 1-11 3-7 5; S. Nwaukoni 3-5 0-2 6; J. Allen 1-2 0-0 2; D. Imes 1-4 0-0 2; M. Grogan 2-3 1-2 7; M. Kone 1-4 0-0 2; D. Payen 2-5 0-1 4. Totals 16-48 8-19 44.
Three-point goals: WAG 1-9 (K. Ortiz 0-1; M. Burton 0-2; H. Naurais 0-2; J. Williams 0-1; D. Anderson 0-1; L. Burnett 1-1; E. Fanning 0-1), HOFS 4-12 (S. Mejia 0-2; D. Imes 0-1; M. Grogan 2-3; T. Buie 2-6); Rebounds: WAG 39 (N. Folahan 10), HOFS 31 (S. Nwaukoni 11); Assists: WAG 5 (K. Ortiz 3), HOFS 11 (S. Mejia 7); Total Fouls -- WAG 22, HOFS 17; Fouled Out: WAG-None; HOFS-D. Imes.