By Gio Annatelli - STAFF WRITER
College basketball season is upon us and that means that March Madness is getting closer. Beginning on March 13 with Selection Sunday, the best time in sports begins. For those that may not know what I’m talking about, March Madness is another name for the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship. For three weeks, the whole country will be expecting the favorites to win and hoping for a Cinderella team to emerge.
In the past couple years, we’ve seen the likes of Butler, Davidson and Wichita State come out of nowhere and shock the world. Following their big breaks, all three teams stuck around as a dangerous team come tournament time. The Hofstra Pride men’s basketball team is looking to become one of those Cinderella stories.
Any team coming out of the Colonial Athletic Association, a mid-major conference, will face adversity against the big schools like Kentucky and Duke. However, the CAA has produced teams who made it as far as the Final Four. If anyone remembers, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) played in the CAA for a while and made a big name for itself come tournament time. Following its big run in 2011 and early departure from the madness in 2012, VCU was good enough to move up to the Atlantic-10 conference. Anybody remember 2006 when George Mason made it as a controversial at-large bid and shocked the world as an 11 seed going to the Final Four? I sure do. The Patriots, who didn’t even make it to the conference finals, mowed down opponents, including the one-seeded UConn Huskies in overtime, en route to the Final Four to get blown out by Florida.
But how? How can Hofstra be that team when they themselves couldn’t make it to the conference finals last year? The Pride is a much better team than it was last year and is a much hungrier team.
For one thing, Hofstra is led by CAA Preseason Player of the Year Juan’ya Green. This is no surprise, Green averaged over 17 points a game and was ninth in Division I in assists with 6.5 per game last season, while being named apart of the All-CAA first team. So far this season, Green has exceeded both statistics, having 18.3 points per game and 7.4 assists per game. The 7.4 APG puts him seventh in the nation. His ability to cut through the defense and drive through the lane while being able to see the whole court is an integral part of this Pride team. Joining Juan’ya Green on the first team is fellow senior Ameen Tanksley. Tanksley was fourth in the conference last year with over 16 points a game and fifth in steals with 1.4 per game. Currently, Tanksley is second on the team with 16 points per game and has pulled down 5.1 rebounds per game. He has the ability to knock down three-pointers, grab down rebounds and drive into the paint and score. This is the first time since the 2006-07 season where Hofstra had a pair of players on the preseason All-CAA first team. During that same year, the Pride made its first and only CAA finals, which it came up short in against UNCW.
The Pride has its own version of “The Big Three” with Brian Bernardi joining Green and Tanksley as the third member. Last year was Bernardi’s first year with the Pride on the court after transferring from SMU and boy did he knock the lights out. Bernardi sunk a team-high 95 shots from behind the arc and also shot over 40 percent from the outside area. “The Staten Island Sniper” is at the top of the CAA, knocking down 52 percent of his threes, along with averaging 15.6 points per game.
Rounding out the starting line are big men sophomore Rokas Gustys and transfer Denton Koon. Hobbled by injuries, Gustys went under the wing of top big man Moussa Kone. Now, a year older and wiser, Gustys is second in the conference in rebounding averaging 9.1 per game. After starting his career red-hot in an always-tough Ivy League conference, Koon suffered a knee injury in the preseason of his senior year and ended up missing the whole season. Now fully healthy and ready to have the senior year that he missed, Koon brings a veteran’s presence with the experience of going up against schools like Harvard, Syracuse and Butler. Koon is currently the fourth member of this Hofstra Pride team to score in double digits, averaging just over 11 points per game.
The one thing that can give Hofstra that extra push in the tournament is the depth on the bench. The Pride has one of the toughest and scrappiest players in the conference in Malik Nichols. He is always all over the court, providing a huge spark off the bench. Nichols is topping his season last year, averaging 7.4 points per game and is right behind Gustys in rebounding, averaging 6.6.
Since joining the CAA in the 2001-02 season, this marks the second time the Pride enters the season as the preseason favorite. The first time it happened was during the 2006-07 season that made it to the conference finals. The similarities keep showing up. But the Pride has a stronger drive after being seconds away from making it to the conference finals. It’s dealt with heartbreak. It’s dealt with disappointment. This year is different.
My prediction before the season was that the Pride was going to just coast through the non-conference schedule, going undefeated and carrying its fantastic play into conference season. The Pride then lost only two games in the conference: once at home against James Madison and then the following game at Northeastern. After that, it lights a fire under the team and it dominates the rest of the season, garnering the one-seed come tournament time. Hofstra coasts through the tournament and is able to call itself CAA champion for the first time. So far, I was only wrong about the undefeated part.
But it seems the Pride is riding through the non-conference with ease. For the rest of the season, my prediction stands.
With a lot of luck, skill and the magic that comes with March Madness, the Pride will become bracket busters and make a run, and a name, for itself. Following this year, the Pride will cement itself as a mid-major powerhouse and will go back to the tournament for years to come.