Hofstra in prime position to make run at CAA crown
The Hofstra Pride men’s basketball team is leagues ahead of where they were at this time last year.
Through the first 11 games of Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) play, the Pride is 7-4. Last year, the squad was 3-8 through its first 11 games.
“I think the biggest key [to our success this year] is that our non-conference schedule really got us ready for the conference,” said Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich.
“We played even better teams this year than last year and had some success. We beat Dayton, played well against Clemson and played well against Auburn, and we really even had some great stretches where we played well against Villanova.”
The start of conference slate was also difficult for Hofstra, but the Pride managed to get past that hurdle with ease.
“I didn’t think the gods of scheduling were good to us when we started four out of six on the road,” Mihalich said.
“So in September when you get that, you’re kicking and screaming because it doesn’t seem right and I still don’t think it is. But we got out of that being 4-2.”
One thing that makes the Pride’s record even more impressive is the competition they’ve succeeded against already.
You could argue that Hofstra has played its hardest games of the conference schedule, and that the upcoming stretch won’t be as difficult. The Pride has only one game left against a top-three team in the CAA.
There are a few factors that have led to Hofstra’s success as opposed to last season. For one, the team is much more balanced.
Before the season, the Pride’s coaching staff boasted that this year’s squad might be the deepest they’ve ever fielded in Hempstead.
When Hofstra won the CAA regular season title in 2016, there were only six players in the rotation.
Now the Pride have 10 players who see the floor almost every game.
“It’s a big credit to everyone stepping up in major ways,” said Justin Wright-Foreman, the junior guard who leads the team with 25.1 points per game.
“Elijah [Pemberton] had a big game [against UNC-Wilmington]. [Rokas Gustys] had a big game; he had 17 [points] and 16 [rebounds]. We had a great play from Jalen Ray. Desure Buie too. Everybody is chipping in. Kenny Wormley, Stafford Trueheart, we’re all just playing our parts.”
It’s not just a deep cast either; it’s a star-studded one. Wright-Foreman is No. 4 in the country in scoring and plays in 95 percent of the team’s possessions – a mark that leads the nation.
The senior forward Gustys is No. 6 in the country with 11.7 rebounds per contest and the Lithuanian just passed John Irving for the most career rebounds by a Hofstra Division I player.
Ray, a freshman, has had two buzzer-beaters that opened up SportsCenter and gained national recognition.
Pemberton, a sophomore, willed Hofstra to a rout against longtime foe UNCW with 27 points, seven boards and an 11 for 12 night at the free throw line.
But beyond the sheer talent on the team, the players are just enjoying each other’s company more than they used to.
“Definitely our camaraderie has changed,” Wright-Foreman said.
“We’re closer on the court than I’d say we were last year. We hang out off the court as well, so all of that chemistry we have is just building up and increasing on the court.”
There are some tough teams standing between the Pride and a CAA title, which would provide Hofstra its first NCAA tournament berth since 2001.
“The toughest team is Charleston,” Mihalich said.
“They have the most talent. They’re picked to win the league for a reason. In terms of their top seven players, they’re the best in the league. That includes size and physicality, skills and ability, all of that. They have the best personnel.”
Wright-Foreman agrees that the Cougars will be the biggest threat for the Pride.
“They have one of the CAA Player of the Year candidates on their team,” Wright-Foreman said.
“They just have a lot of great pieces. Grant Riller, Joe Chealey, Jarrell Brantley, they just have a lot of really good personnel that we have to watch out for.”
Hofstra will have to wait for the CAA tournament for another chance at Charleston.
The team is about to hit the road to take on Elon University and UNCW to continue its hot play of late. While some might be thinking ahead, Mihalich just wants to make sure the team lives in the moment.
“I’m telling the team to embrace the situation right now,” Mihalich said.
“With seven games to go, we’re one game out of first place. Every day counts, every day’s important. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Be dedicated to it, and believe that you can be one of the best teams in the league.”