Guest Column: A View from Courtside
Selection Sunday. On the Bubble. Strength of Schedule. At-Large Bids. Mid-Majors. Power Conferences. Bracket Busters. It's all the vernacular of March Madness, the countdown to the annual NCAA Division 1 College Basketball Championship - the best three weeks in American sport. The anticipation of this year's selections had special meaning when one of our locals - Coach and Team - appeared virtually assured of an invitation to the Big Dance. Dramatically, the dream was shattered. In its place, the drive and determination of Hofstra University's frustrated post-season provided acclimation for the class and commitment exemplified by an outstanding group of men. And from none better than a biased observer who had a front row seat.
The best kept secret in Metropolitan college basketball is Hofstra University coached by Williston Park resident Tom Pecora. Hofstra flew onto the national hoops scene five years ago when the GQ persona of Jay Wright sprinted to the Big East big time following consecutive NCAA appearances at HU. While Wright now toils in the bright lights of Philadelphia destined for this year's Final Four, Pecora plies his trade in the anonymity of Hempstead. Exciting, eh? Just wait.
Pecora was anointed the head coach of the Pride, or the Flying Dutchmen as your father's father might say, when Wright zipped home along the Pennsylvania Turnpike to restore Villanova's maimed powerhouse. Now don't get me wrong, Wright made sure his lead assistant of seven years was named top dog but the task ahead of Pecora was no layup. Hofstra was departing the laggard America East Conference for the stronger and more athletic Colonial Athletic Association. Regional recruiting left little time to manage the difficult transition. Meanwhile, Wright convinced the best four players in New York City to travel down the Main Line. Welcome to the real deal, TP.
Forced to make it work, Pecora sweated through the adversity of three sub-standard years before turning the corner a year ago. A breakthrough season of 21 wins, the benchmark for aspiring coaches, and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament for the first time since 1999 gave limited exposure to a program on the rise. With critical pieces returning this year, expectations were heightened but controlled in a conference where underclassmen would dominate. What followed was spectacular. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
The Pride slogged through an ordinary non-conference schedule losing only to Notre Dame. Recent history proving the taste of New York, Hofstra knocked off a tarnished but rebuilding St. John's Red Storm for the third consecutive year and fourth time in six. Basketball folks began to take notice - but Hempstead is no hotbed. Pecora's quintet caught fire in the New Year rattling off six game winning streaks en route to a 14-4 conference mark and a first round bye in the conference tournament. A run to the Championship game and 24 wins looked like an attractive resumÄ to secure the school's first NCAA bid in five years. Just as was when Pecora took the helm, someone put a sign on his back that said "kick me" (or better yet, punch me).
With Billy Packer and Jim Nantz lamenting the plentitude of small conference colleges (Mid-Majors) granted invitations (At-Large bids) to this year's dance card (Selection Sunday), Hofstra stood idly by (On the Bubble) waiting. When the field was complete, Hofstra was sabotaged by big name schools (Power Conferences) with supposedly stronger profiles (Strength of Schedule). Worse yet, the CAA bid goes to a conference rival whipped twice in the last 11 days of the season by the Pride, whose starting senior leader gets suspended for a low blow to Hofstra's star and whose Athletic Director sat on the NCAA Committee selecting the respective teams. With no time (and no advantage) to brood, Hofstra accepted the consolation prize, the National Invitation Tournament, and saw it as a mission. As is Pecora's fate, the injustices would not end.
As one of the last teams dissed in the NCAA field, Hofstra assumed they would receive a top seed providing a celebratory run at Hofstra Arena prior to a hopeful Final Four visit to Madison Square Garden. With more popular and well known teams logging #1 seeds, Pecora stated the obvious in one of his weekly radio appearances, "I don't know much more that we can do - besides winning 24 games." How about winning 29?
Despite the hardship in the midst of this season's success, Pecora never changed his demeanor nor doubted his team who led by example. He is as engaging and professional as they come - a darling in the eyes of the local media such as Mike and the Mad Dog. And the results are showing. His Mid-Major lunch bucket approach is bantered about as a potential candidate for Wright-like head coaching slots. Hofstra took to the NIT court defeating a much taller Nebraska contingent before outlasting a rematch with St. Joseph's in their hostile bandbox. Spoils for the glory? A rematch with a top conference foe (Old Dominion) who was ripe to avenge two regular season defeats. The balloon finally popped last Wednesday night in front of the first standing room only home crowd of the year and their second nationally televised (ESPN) game of the month. Although the road fell short of the Garden, vindication ruled for a season of doubters. Tommy Pecora has once again put Hofstra University on the map.
The Pride has a bright future although the job never gets easier. Unlike the Big East which can guarantee half of their teams entry into the NCAA field, the CAA has barely improved the precedent of inviting a pair of their combatants with this year's performance. We can only hope Pecora continues his burgeoning success and maybe the national critics take notice (and pipe down). It would be nice if he found some support in his half empty arena as well. November can't come soon enough.