Written by Tom Winters Friday, 19 March 2010 00:00
In a March 1 column in Newsday, Steve Marcus proved how off base one can be in assessing the current state of local college basketball. His harsh criticism of Hofstra University’s basketball program in contrast to SUNY Stony Brook’s neophyte hoop success is unfair and untrue. While no one can downgrade the great story that head coach Steve Pikiell’s Seawolves are writing as they improve from doormat to conference champion in the mediocre America East Conference, there is no doubt which is the finest college basketball program in the Metropolitan area over the past 10 years – the Hofstra Pride. The boys from Hempstead have a better record than BCS conference foes from St. John’s (with multiple victories over the Red Storm over the past few years) and Seton Hall as well as Manhattan and the disastrous Fordham program – all considered to be much higher profile schools from larger basketball denizens with storied hardwood histories.
Marcus’ opinion that Hofstra reconsider the 2001 move from the America East (coinciding with head coach Jay Wright’s departure to Top 10 Big East beast Villanova and Speedy Claxton’s ascension to the NBA) is absolutely ludicrous. Current head coach (and local Williston Park resident) Tom Pecora inherited a program with consecutive America East Championships and NCAA bids but was forced to find stronger, quicker and more athletic players for their immediate inclusion into the bigger and tougher Colonial Athletic Association. This demanded a 180-degree turn in recruiting philosophy and an uphill battle entering a conference with a record of NBA MVPs such as “The Admiral” David Robinson.
While Pecora has yet to make the Big Dance (and there is no guarantee Pikiell will either), Hofstra garnered the greatest publicity feat the program has ever known when the Pride was snubbed for George Mason, which found its way to the NCAA’s Holy Grail, the national Final Four in 2006. This became the most significant story in major college basketball in over 20 years. (Note: read Cinderella by Michael Litos for a stirring account of that magical season.)
Mason’s Final Four run and VCU’s subsequent upset of venerable Duke the following year produced conference-sharing revenue rewards for the Hofstra budget via the NCAA’s attractive television marketing deal that the America East can not duplicate. The decision to move from the America East to the Colonial was not only the right athletic decision, it was fiscally responsible and marketing savvy.
The basketball at Hofstra’s beautiful Mack Center is leaps and bounds better than the high school-like court at SBU’s Pritchard Gymnasium and the best bargain in a struggling economy. Not to mention, Pecora has become the second winningest coach in Hofstra history in a conference Marcus thinks lacks “détente.” Pecora even stayed put after multiple offers to depart for greener pastures despite mentoring under the shadow of Wright and losing his top assistant to another high mid-major conference.
Marcus (and possibly other detractors) want Hofstra to return to the obscurity of the America East. This merely parlays the opportunity for acceptance into the prestigious Field of 65 of the NCAA Division 1 Basketball Tournament into dooming the AE champion to a bottom feeder #16 seed and immediate tourney exit (no #16 has ever beaten a #1). Worse yet, you could land a spot in the dreaded, unwatchable and barely attended play-in game before the tourney officially begins its three week TV stronghold. Routinely, the CAA captures a more advantageous #11 or #12 seed and, in recent years, a coveted at-large bid signifying one of the best 34 teams in the country. For context, the America East has never seen the likes of an at-large nor probably ever will. Let’s see if SBU can pull off an upset versus a legendary powerhouse like Hofstra nearly did to UCLA in 2001.
Pecora, in Marcus’ own words, “has won at least 20 games four times since leaving the America East” and has produced multiple NIT bids (including a quarterfinal home game a few years ago) while the America East struggles for similar recognition. While Stony Brook is guaranteed an NIT invitation this year, it is a result of recent changes in the NIT criteria for automatic selection of conference champions who are neglected by the NCAA. Hofstra, on the other hand, was selected in the past on its own merit. The Pride began this season with a match-up against top ranked and potential top seed Kansas and nearly upset perennial Big East champ UConn (Pikiell’s former employer). The Seawolves wish for similar match-ups that won’t result in blowouts.
While it may be a disadvantage for Hofstra to play the CAA (Colonial Athletic Association) Conference Tournament in Richmond, Virginia in front of partisan CAA fans rooting for VCU, Old Dominion, Mason or William & Mary, the quality of play dwarfs the America East. It has made the Pride program better and more relevant. Pecora, and his team, is often heard and seen on multiple local and national media outlets while Pikiell toils in obscurity on the outskirts of the island. Would Pecora have been able to recruit Antoine Agudio (the school’s all-time leading scorer), Loren Stokes, Carlos Rivera or Charles Jenkins (the future all-time leading scorer) with the reputation of the America East? Absolutely not!
Let’s hold court before praising the Seawolves after one successful season. A season in which SBU (Stony Brook University) is scrambling to ensure home court advantage for the AE Championship game while Hofstra had no issues selling out with ease in 2000 and 2001 (the Stony Brook facility must meet conference seating minimums for revenue and ESPN TV requirements). At the same time, Pecora will attempt to pull off an upset in Richmond while playing the best ball of the year (8-1) down the stretch of the conference schedule.
I won’t be rooting against the Seawolves but I will surely be pulling for the Pride in a conference where Hofstra has demonstrated they can compete and where they belong.
(Editor’s Note: Tom Winters has been a freelance contributor to the Mineola American for years and his View From The Bleachers Column has provided inspirational sports commentary on topics ranging from high school athletics to professionals with a common theme tied to the local community. His comments do not reflect those of Anton Newspapers or the Mineola American.)