Claxton embracing magical season from new perspective
The spectacular year that saw Hofstra garner a 25-6 record while recording a nation-best 16-game win streak cannot be overshadowed as fans key in to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) tournament to see what the Pride will accomplish next.
After losing Rokas Gustys – the centerpiece of last season’s team – to graduation following the 2017-18 season, it seemed unlikely that the Pride would improve, much less enjoy, the greatest success it has seen since the turn of the century.
Save for a strong year in 2005 in which the Pride closed its season with a 26-7 record and a loss in the CAA tournament championship, the type of magic that has been directly associated with this team’s success has brought back memories of the last time Hofstra, then playing in the America East Conference (AEC) and known as the Dutchmen, earned a bid into the famed March Madness tournament.
While many things have changed for the Pride since then, among them their mascot, conference and coaching staff, one element of Hofstra basketball has remained the same: Craig “Speedy” Claxton.
Exactly 19 years ago, Claxton was leading the charge for a Hofstra team that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in 33 years, engineering the successful attack from the court as the eighth leading scorer in the nation. The 1999 Dutchmen, coached by current Villanova head coach Jay Wright, entered the tournament as the No. 14 seed in the East Region of the bracket, eventually falling to Oklahoma State University in the first round.
Claxton, who later cemented his historic college career with a first round selection in the NBA Draft following the 1999-2000 season, averaged 22.8 points per game while proving to be a potent facilitator and rebounder as well, with six assists and 5.4 rebounds per game.
The undisputed face of Hofstra during that time, Claxton is now watching another one take shape 19 years later as Hofstra looks to break another drought with Claxton on the sidelines as an assistant coach.
“We had an outstanding player in myself, and of course this team has that in [Wright-Foreman],” Claxton said. “We both need to score in order for our team to win. In my case, I had to score and facilitate. In [Wright-Foreman’s] case, we need him to score a lot of points in order for us to be successful.”
Scoring is just what Wright-Foreman has been doing in his fourth year wearing the blue and gold. As if one-upping Claxton wasn’t enough, Wright-Foreman currently sees himself in third place among the nation’s leading scorers, standing five spots higher than his assistant coach did in 1999, all while shooting at an incredibly efficient clip from the field at 52 percent as well as the three at 44 percent.
Wright-Foreman is personifying Hofstra basketball at the moment with his swagger and competitive demeanor, electrifying the crowd with nine 30-point games and two 40-pointers, including one in which he dropped 48 points in a comeback effort against The College of William & Mary in front of his home crowd in February.
Yet while Wright-Foreman has made his case as the 2019 version of Claxton with his ability to score as he slowly plays his way into draft conversations, the pieces in the unit around him are proving just as valuable in the breathtaking season Hofstra is experiencing.
Running the floor for the Pride from the point guard position, Desure Buie leads the CAA in steals per game with 2.5, assist/turnover ratio with 3.4 and free throw percentage at an astounding 90 percent. His conference-leading figures in both steals and free throw percentage are each good enough to place 13th in the NCAA as a whole, making him among some of the best in the country alongside Wright-Foreman.
Near the paint where points are harder to come by, forward Jacquil Taylor is making his presence felt as well, standing at No. 2 in the CAA in blocked shots and No. 5 in rebounding.
The Robin to Wright-Foreman’s Batman is Eli Pemberton, whose 15.5 points per game proves impactful time and time again, as he not only alleviates pressure from Wright-Foreman but has the ability to create his own shot when called upon.
These supplements don’t veer too far from what aided Claxton in his 1999 campaign when Norm Richardson added just over 16 points per game while both Roberto Gittens and Greg Springfield averaged over six rebounds a game.
“We both played with shooters that you’ve got to guard, so that makes it harder for teams to double-team us and concentrate too much on myself and [Wright-Foreman],” Claxton said. “If you do come with a double or triple team, he’s able to find a guy and I was able to find a guy and those guys are able to knock down shots.”
If the formula from 2000-01 contained the right science to make the NCAA tournament, then Hofstra seems to be headed in the right direction.
“We both had the will to win,” Claxton said when comparing the two Hofstra teams. “We both hold each other accountable. We go into every game thinking we’re going to win.”
Should the Pride win the CAA tournament that will take place from Saturday, March 9, to Tuesday, March 12, they will earn an automatic bid to the national tournament alongside every conference tournament winner across the Division I level. Yet while Hofstra heads into the conference tournament with the No. 1 seed shining over their head, they know the final championship trophy won’t be handed over without them earning it.
“We know that we’ve got to bring it every night,” Claxton said. “This is a tough conference. Anybody can be beaten on any given day. We lost to [UNC-Wilmington] a week ago and to [James Madison University] this past weekend, and they were the bottom-feeders of the conference up until this point.”
Even with a loss in the CAA tournament, a sliver of hope may still be there for Hofstra to make the big dance. Hofstra’s continued dominance throughout the season – including its one-time nation-leading 16-game win streak – could prove enough to earn a ticket into mid-March through an at-large bid – a privilege usually rewarded to big name schools that don’t come out on top of the major basketball conferences.
Hofstra, a mid-major program that is riding on just one year of nationwide recognition, doesn’t warrant the attention of many basketball fans across the country who believe that the team’s success is merely based on a weaker strength of schedule. To them, a team making it out of a lesser known conference such as the CAA doesn’t stand a chance against teams coming out of esteemed conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Southeastern Conference (SEC), even those who underperformed throughout the season.
To Claxton, however, these people may just be overlooking what happens to be a robust group of teams.
“If they think this conference is not good, they should have a CAA-Big East tournament like they have the Big Ten-ACC challenge,” Claxton said. “I would love to have a CAA – [Atlantic 10] challenge. I think then people would take notice of how good this conference really is.”
The CAA proves itself competitive year after year, with only one repeated champion since 2012 and with solid outings, albeit losses, against strong programs. Hofstra has taken on tough opponents, as seen in the 69-67 overtime thriller at the beginning of the season against Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) – a perennial NCAA tournament team – and the 72-76 grinder against the Marshall Thundering Herd, a team who reached the second round in the tournament a year ago. Not to mention, both of these games came before Hofstra heated up on its way to a nation-leading 16-game win streak.
“If we’re lucky enough to get in, I think we can do some damage,” Claxton said. “We have a dangerous team. We have a unique zone and a great player in [Wright-Foreman]. I think we can give one of those big boys a tough matchup.”
A win in the NCAA tournament would not only supersede what Claxton’s team did in 2000 but would invigorate an entire New York region that hasn’t seen Hofstra overcome expectations in quite some time.
“These guys believe in each other and hold each other accountable,” Claxton said. “It’s been a magical season, and hopefully we can finish this thing up the right way.”
Image Courtesy of Hofstra Athletics