Howie Dickenman, at 68 years young, has been dealt some tough hands the last couple of seasons at Central Connecticut. This, his 19th at the table with CCSU, looked like it could hold some winning cards,none more valuable than his ace, senior Kyle Vinales, who was a first-team preseason pick and the leading returning career scorer in the conference.
But just two weeks before the regular season began, Vinales was arrested after an altercation with his girlfriend and subsequently suspended indefinitely. The Blue Devils lost their first seven games, and were down to just nine players in uniform with starting point guard (and another senior) Malcolm McMillan out injured heading into Saturday’s short drive to Hartford. They also learned earlier in the week that Vinales would not return, leaving school completely, ending his collegiate career on an unfortunate note.
But, on a night where CCSU legend Bill Detrick – who died at the age of 87 in September – was honored the Blue Devils got off to a hot start and led wire to wire in a 56-47 upset over Hartford (5-4) at Chase Family Arena.
“Our team in the seven-game losing streak was resilient,” Dickenman said. “You would never know if you came to our practices that we had a losing streak. “We practiced this morning with emotion, and I told them we had to carry that emotion and energy to this game. With a team that practices as hard as we do, we knew sooner or later, we were going to break that streak.”
Can Dickenman bluff and maneuver his new hand to make it as good as his old one as the NEC season approaches?
Here are my thoughts:
1. Central Connecticut will still be dangerous in the NEC – It did look like the Blue Devils had a weight lifted off their shoulders with the Vinales situation finally resolved, racing out to a 22-8 lead midway through the first half against a normally stubborn Hartford defense. They made some difficult shots to do so, and would score only 34 points the rest of the way, but on nights like Saturday where shots are going down, they can beat anyone in a balanced NEC (and McMillan – who averaged double figures last season – is expected to be back in a couple of weeks, just in time . Brandon Peel led the way with 16 points and 16 rebounds, and actually showed some range, hitting a couple of 18-foot jumpers. Central had only six assists, and has one of the smallest lineups in Division I (although the won the battle of the boards, 42-37, on Saturday), so one game does not fix all their ills. But at least they can play with some confidence.
“I worked really hard in the offseason on improving my jump shot,” Peel said. “I’m not going to lie, the first few games it wasn’t falling at all, but it’s starting to drop the last couple of games. Opponents have to respect me and it opens up other things for my teammates.”
2. Lack of offense is dangerous for Hartford – I’ve mentioned it before, but a game like Saturday is the problem that relies so heavily on defense like the Hawks. When a team gets hot like Central did early (which will happen in America East play at some point), it is so hard for the Hawks to dig out of that hole. Hartford got as close as three late, but never led or tied the game after the first basket of the night. They also have injury woes, with Wes Cole day-to-day and Nate Sikma relegated to just 12 minutes. Five players played 31 minutes or more, and although the Hawks turned the ball over just nine times, they shot only 28.8% from the field (17-of-59). John Gallagher is now left with a tough choice on whether to keep Alaskan freshman Jack Hobbs redshirted as he originally planned, or play him now and have him ready for America East play (Hartford opened conference play with a loss at Vermont on Wednesday, but doesn’t have another America East game until Jan. 7).
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Gallagher said. “But the good thing is it’s early December, and I enjoy seeing whose character is going to show up at 10 a.m. tomorrow (Sunday). We’re going to make some judgements. We may not be able to redshirt a guy. We have some injuries and we have to figure this out.”
3. Will joining the slowdown crowd help CCSU? – The Blue Devils had only 58 possessions on Saturday, which is unofficially the slowest Central has played since the 2010-11 season in a game. With players like Vinales, Ken Horton, Robby Ptacek, and even Matt Hunter, CCSU was able to play an entertaining run and gun style that didn’t really involve patience or defense much of the time. But all those guys are all now gone, and that may force Dickenman to change strategy with the hand he is now holding.
“We really don’t talk about the situation (with Vinales) much,” Dickenman said. “We put it behind us. We hope to get Malcolm McMillan back for league play. All credit to (freshman) Kevin Seymour, who played 35 more minutes tonight and only had two turnovers. This is a kid I took in my office and told him point blank, ‘You’re coming here as a backup. You might get two or three minutes here and there.’ And tonight he got the biggest basket in the game.”