By Nick Mazzarella - Staff Writer After Hofstra was picked to finish last in its conference just a year ago, the Pride is now considered one of the top-tier teams in the CAA.
The Pride was picked to finish third this season by the league’s coaches, media relations directors and media members. Junior guard Juan’ya Green (first team) and graduate guard Dion Nesmith (second team) were voted to preseason all-conference teams.
From the 2013-14 team that finished 10-23, the players returning are Nesmith, senior forward/center Moussa Kone and sophomore guard/forward Jamall Robinson. Nesmith was named to the All-CAA third team last year, and Robinson earned CAA All-Rookie honors. Kone, Hofstra’s only true big man who isn’t a freshman, has seen his point and rebound averages increase each year.
“Moussa just keeps getting better and better, and there’s no one more reliable than Jamall and Dion,” said head coach Joe Mihalich, who’s entering his second season at Hofstra. “They’re just high-character guys.”
Hofstra is already getting media attention. CBSSports.com’s Jon Rothstein picked Hofstra to win the CAA and as one of five mid-majors to watch, describing Green as “the type of player a major conference coach won’t want to see in the NCAA tournament.”
Rothstein likes Hofstra’s depth, and so does Mihalich. He said that it’s hard to decide on a starting five, but he described that as “a wonderful thing.”
“It’s a coach’s dream to have a lot of good players,” he said. “We have a whole bunch of guys who are going to play.”
Two of those players are Green and junior guard/forward Ameen Tanksley, who, like Mihalich, made the switch from Niagara to Hofstra. Since Green and Tanksley had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, it has been a while since Mihalich last coached them in a game. 605 days separate their last game in a Niagara uniform and the Pride’s Nov. 14 season opener.
“We always tell these guys it’s a privilege to be on this team, but that works both ways,” said Mihalich. “It’s a privilege for me to be coaching good guys.”
Green and Tanksley aren’t the only transfers who will be making their Hofstra debuts this year. Sophomore guard Brian Bernardi – who made a team-best 41.8 percent of his three-point attempts in his only season at SMU – also sat out in 2013-14. Junior guard/forward Malik Nichols joins the Pride after two years at South Plains College. Nichols initially committed to Hofstra in November 2010, but he went to prep school for a year and then junior college.
Despite having a roster with seven players who didn’t play a game in a Hofstra uniform last year, Mihalich is happy with his group’s chemistry so far. It’s something that he and his coaching staff study every day in order to find the combinations that work best.
The new faces include true freshmen Andre Walker and Rokas Gustys. The 6-foot-10 Walker and the 6-foot-9 Gustys join a frontcourt that lost three forwards from last year’s team. Mihalich said that both of his recruits have been really nice surprises.
“Rokas has done extremely well, and Andre has shown some really good signs that he can help us,” he said.
The Pride’s other freshman, guard Eliel Gonzalez, redshirted last season. The Cayey, Puerto Rico, native took part in Basketball without Borders Americas 2013, the NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and social responsibility program. Only the top youth players from 15 countries in the Americas were chosen to participate based on their basketball skills, leadership abilities and dedication to the sport.
Hofstra opens its season at home against Jacksonville, a team that went 2-13 on the road last year. Since then, the new-look Dolphins have brought in eight players – five of which are junior college transfers. The Pride will then travel to NC State for an ACC road game versus a Wolfpack team that advanced to the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament.
When asked about goals for the 2014-15 campaign, Mihalich spoke of the CAA tournament.
“Our goal is to be one of the best teams in the league and to have a chance in March to win the whole thing in Baltimore,” he said.
Mihalich added, “It’s not about, ‘let’s finish first, let’s finish fourth, let’s finish third;’ it’s about, ‘let’s be the best team in March so that we can climb up that ladder and cut down those nets.’”