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Playing in CAA has hurt Hofstra hoops

Hofstra's Chaz Williams looks to take a shot

Hofstra's Chaz Williams looks to take a shot against Colonial Athletic Association opponent Drexel. Steven Marcus says that playing in the conference has hurt the basketball team's chances of reaching the NCAA tournament. (Feb. 10, 2010) Credit: Richard Slattery

Stony Brook University making the NCAA Tournament but not Hofstra? For years, that seemed impossible in men's basketball. Now, it is plausible. And it is because of the conferences and venues.

This is a haunting time of the year for Hofstra. It is approaching the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament and the very unfriendly confines of Richmond Coliseum, where good winning seasons always end in southern discomfort.

For Hofstra, it is a reminder of a decision made by a previous administration in 2001 that negatively impacts the basketball team to this day: Hofstra removed itself from the America East Conference - along with Delaware, Drexel and Towson - with the thought of helping its football team gain conference affiliation and also for the promise of a higher basketball profile and multiple NCAA bids in the CAA. But no former America East school has won the CAA Tournament.

Will this year be any different? Hofstra will play its first game in the tournament against Georgia State Friday on a supposedly neutral court. But whatever fan base shows up will root for the underdog Panthers, a 10th seed. A Hofstra victory only ups the eventual hometown ante and the likelihood of eventually facing the cream of the CAA in Old Dominion or Virginia Commonwealth.

The southern feel of the venue is inescapable and Hofstra, with teams much stronger than this edition, has been unable to conquer the atmosphere that undoubtedly favors the opponent.

Hofstra (18-13) has won at least 20 games four times since leaving the America East and has no NCAA bids to show for it. Each of those seasons ended with a loss in Richmond.

Stony Brook, a favorite for the first time in the America East, has a much more neutral road to qualify for the Big Dance. It will play its first tournament game Saturday in Hartford's Chase Arena. You can be sure Stony Brook will arrange for a ferry load of fans. It wouldn't be surprising to see Stony Brook's marching band invade the arena.

Hometown Hartford doesn't figure to get past Maine in its first game. No local rooting interest exists after that. Win twice in Hartford and Stony Brook, as the regular-season champion, is entitled to be home for the tournament championship game. Even at hastily prepared Stony Brook Arena, the atmosphere will help ensure a Stony Brook victory, just as it did for Hofstra in 2000 and 2001.

And if Stony Brook doesn't make it to the NCAA Tournament, it is already assured of an NIT bid. Hofstra is not. It will have to look toward the obscure College Basketball Invitational.

Why is Hofstra on this treadmill and why does it stay in the CAA? The decision to leave America East was largely based on football, which it has dropped, starting next season.

At the time of its decision, Hofstra had no conference for its football team and the CAA offered inclusion in what was then called the Atlantic 10. Even with the abolishment of football, Hofstra would gladly move all of its programs into the A-10, if invited. (University president Stuart Rabinowitz implied as much to WFAN's Mike Francesa during an interview in December about dropping football.) But there are no openings - and little interest by A-10 members.

This means that one good winning season after another ends in predictable fashion - a loss in the CAA Tournament in Richmond.

At some point, maybe even this season, Hofstra basketball coach Tom Pecora will throw up his hands and look elsewhere. He turned down Seton Hall in the past. Will he do the same if, for instance, Fordham calls? That would get him into the A-10, albeit with a bottom feeder.

The solution available to Hofstra - and one it should consider - is to go back to America East. It refuses to seek détente with Stony Brook, which Hofstra has dropped from its men's basketball schedule, and also believes backpedaling would hurt its image. But it would create a great local rivalry and enable both to shoot for college basketball's ultimate prize.


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