Reliance is a feeble concept.
It’s the kind of thing that gets you into serious trouble. Not to be grim, but life is built on the unexpected, on a series of letdowns. Naturally, we humans adapt less when faced with the things we can anticipate. Preparations occurs due to anticipation; panic is what ensues when our expectations are shaken. Welcome to Philosophy 101, section 140. This has been your first class. How ‘bout them tuition dollars?
I bring up such dreary notions of certainty — and uncertainty — due to the fact that, for some time, I believed that global pandemics were about as unexpected as volcanic eruptions are in Poughkeepsie, New York. Which is to say: I never thought about them for any longer than Contagion’s runtime (106 minutes), and I’m not too keen on rewatching that film, so let’s just settle on it being a notion that infrequently populates my mind.
I made a mistake. I relied on something — college — something I assumed would be there pretty regularly, when it was supposed to be, when I figured it was set to be omnipresent. I was going to finish out my final semester, graduate, get a job, move out, and begin my next chapter. No questions asked, no reassembly required.
But then, Rudy Gobert “jokingly” touched a bunch of microphones. After that, the ever-lucrative March Madness tournament was cancelled completely. On that same day, Tom Hanks, who I always assumed to be as invulnerable as Betty White and Morgan Freeman, tested positive for the coronavirus. I started feeling weird about my friends going out to the local Michelin-starred establishment, Darby O’Gills, where there would be crowds and sweat and straw-sharing. And then I got an email; if I recall correctly, it read, “You don’t gotta go home, but you can’t stay here. Love, DJM.” I assured crying friends that we’d be back. I don’t know that I believed that, but I said it. I hope they didn’t rely too heavily on that flimsy message of mine.
On my drive home, I attempted to recall faint glimpses of my memories, fearful that I wouldn’t be making any more as a student at Marist; tearful, too. But I also did my best to take stock of the things I could still rely on. I found it to be a rather limited list. Certainly my friends, my family, my greatest mentors. I listed off movie theaters, sporting events, and gatherings with friends. Did I also mention that I’m an imbecile?
In a bit of a different way, Marist’s men’s basketball program never let me down either. In my four years, they were never any good. I could always rely on their inability to win no more than 12 games, on their exit from the MAAC tournament coming early on. It was almost too on brand for their 2019-20 season to end because of a loss before every other team’s season was canceled.
So I figured, heading into my post-graduation, post-McCann Arena life, that the never-ending disappointments would persist.
As of January 2, 2021, they have not. I don’t seem to learn.
Presently, as I’m sure you dutiful Center Field readers are aware, the team is 6-2. So far this season, they’ve maintained a point differential of +2.1, a small margin for error, but one that is much improved from last season’s woeful -5.2. They’re scoring six more points per game, and seem to be distributing the ball at a more effective rate. While they’re averaging a similar number of assists per game this season when compared to last year’s numbers (10.3 to 10.5), it almost seemed like too many players had the green light last season, creating what appeared to be a lack of identity, a lack of concrete plan when games got close and the clock ticked lower — which always seemed to happen at the same time.
The de facto option always seemed to be Michael Cubbage, though to me, it almost seemed like that was because he brought the ball up the floor and neglected to look for options. Far too often, he’d drive into a congested lane and force contested jumpers in situations that called for a drive and kick, even a retreat and expedited reset. Sure, in tight and late games, time is of the essence, but you’d rather scramble to find the best shot late than rush to find an iffy shot too early. Cubbage’s numbers this year, with what seems to be a group of better options and a plan that is much more ironed out, look to be the night to last year’s day; he’s shooting 47-percent from the field this year in comparison to a woeful 33-percent clip last year, and 43-percent from three, where he shot 21-percent last year. The sample size is small, but the results are significant. His loss is significant for the remainder of the season, but his ability off-ball and improvement will be crucial to next season’s success upon his return.
About those options, and the fact that people finally seem to be fitting into specific roles on this team as opposed previous seasons, where guys looked to be trying to mold their style of play so it would fit the norms of the position they play. Ricardo Wright, Raheim Sullivan, and Hakim Byrd — all of whom are excellent testaments to John Dunne’s recruiting ability — are offensive engines who can both create shots for teammates and, much more effectively, themselves. Matt Herasme seems less inclined to spot up and shoot from long range than he does to assess the defense’s positioning, perhaps driving baseline and drawing help to therefore create an opening for a teammate’s corner three or a dump to the post.
In that post, both Jordan Jones and Victor Enoh have done exactly what they’ve needed to do: out muscle, and to an extent, out hustle. Neither is ever going to average 20 and 14, but they don’t have to. In their roles on this team, they’re asked to box out, provide late help — hedging early if need be — and rebound the ball. Jones has also evolved as a top scoring option on this team and has become a provider of consistent offense.
Braden Bell, whose bandwagon has been captained by Dave Connelly since his recruitment, remains the everyman. He has all the tools to be just as prolific a defender as Cubbage, and might be the most athletic player on the roster. He has a body like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the leaping ability of Kelly Oubre, the versatility of someone like Kent Bazemore, and an awareness that rivals anyone on his team. If he plays his cards right, he’s as dangerous as anyone in the MAAC is at doing everything. His best quality? That he plugs the holes left by others rather than going for gold, a tactical decision likely by both he and Dunne, cutting more than he drives and filling the lane on defense more than forcing his way into it on offense.
If you’ve frantically scrolled in an effort to find the point and found yourself here, I’ll sum things up for you: This team looks to be a different one than any I saw in four years as a student at Marist, and certainly than any I attempted to analyze in those four years as a journalist. They are fresh and revitalized, not just in roster makeup, but in-game approach. I made jokes in columns last year that poked fun at how frustrated John Dunne always seemed to look on the sidelines, and even noted that he should look in the mirror to find the problem rather than throwing his hands up, assuming it was with the guys dribbling the ball. Some lovely readers likened that to fatal attraction; I wouldn’t go that far. I’d just call it valid criticism that, as of today, Jan. 2, 2021, looks to have been corrected.
So perhaps you can view this column as a way for me to serve myself a hearty bowl of my own words. I wouldn’t go so far on this front either. But I will happily admit to something that I always wanted to admit to but never could bear to lie about: I am thoroughly enjoying this season of Marist Red Foxes basketball. Men’s, that is, for I’ve never not enjoyed a season from a Brian Giorgis-led squad. Keep the faith, Coach. Tell Jonathan Kinane I said hi.
What is this feeling like, you ask? I don’t know, what does it feel like to hold your newborn child? To sink the putt to seal victory at Augusta National? To shake Brad Pitt’s hand? Well, no, this doesn’t compare to those sensations, I’m sure. But there certainly is a proper amount of shock attached to the newfound pride this writer feels. After four years of relying on failure, to enjoy the unexpected for once has, so far, been a riveting change of pace.
It’s also a bit unfair, I’d argue, not just to me, but to the Class of 2020 at large. How is it that in four years, the Red Foxes won 33 games, and in the eight-ish months since I left campus, they’ve won enough games to equate to roughly one-fifth of that grand total? In a year ravaged by a pandemic, with a schedule that has been hacked apart by an ice pick and seems to have been pieced back together with chopsticks? It’s certainly a “just my luck” situation, though it somehow feels worse. I have half a mind to denounce the team altogether. There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says fool me once, shame on… shame on you… And fool me you can’t get fooled again.
And yet here I am. Testing the waters by diving in head first, wearing my hope on my sleeve. Reliance may be feeble, but I’m a starved fan. Don’t let me down, team. Against what might be my better judgment, I’m counting on you.
Edited by Bridget Reilly & Dave Connelly