Looking Forward: Hofstra

The prevailing belief is that a college basketball coach should be producing significant results by his third year at a new job. When Joe Mihalich inherited just four scholarship players from a Hofstra Pride team coming off a disastrous seven-win season in April 2013, even the most optimistic fans had to acknowledge that the road to relevance would be arduous.

But the moment Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley opted to follow their head coach from Niagara to Long Island, the rebuild at Hofstra took a toll-free path to prominence. Mihalich only had to wait one year to get his studs eligible, and two years to get them integrated into the team.

After doubling Hofstra’s win total from 10 (Year One) to 20 (Year Two), Mihalich heads into Year Three with the Pride positioned as the preseason favorite to win the CAA.

Hofstra’s ’14-’15 campaign can be summarized with an oft-referenced stat that frequented this blog last season. The Pride was 17-1 when holding opponents below 70 points, and 3-13 when the opposition hit that magical 70-point barrier. In KenPom World, the Pride was 16-0 when holding opponents below one point per possession, and 4-14 otherwise.

With enhanced depth and expected improvements on the defensive end, the Pride looks fully capable of concluding the season as the CAA’s supreme ruler. The Pride returns its three leading scorers. This trio of former transfers comprise one of the nation’s most underrated backcourts.

The fifth-year senior Green is the steady-handed catalyst that makes Hofstra’s offense go, and the reason the Pride finished 23rd nationally in offensive turnover percentage. Recently selected as the CAA Preseason Player of the Year, Green averaged 17.1 points and 6.5 assists per game last season. Dating back to the ’12-’13 season, he’s scored in double figures in 43 consecutive games. Need I say more?

Green is joined on the Preseason All-CAA First Team by his longtime running mate Tanksley. Tanksley averaged 16.2 points and 5.5 boards per game, and hit 74 3-pointers at a 39.8% clip. Tanksley’s ability to play both the three and four gives Mihalich’s squad multiple versatile looks. He’ll be a true mismatch for just about every team in the CAA.

Redshirt junior Brian Bernardi transferred in from Southern Methodist two years ago, and will start at the two. He’s one of the best pure shooters (95 3-pointers, 40.4% from three) in the country, and one of the Pride’s top defenders. Hofstra’s third wheel doesn’t get the same offensive volume as Green and Tanksley, but helps those guys get great looks because he’s a threat to score out to 25 feet.

Despite the loss of underutilized forward Moussa Kone, the Pride frontcourt has the potential to be much improved. Two sophomores flashed considerable potential in ’14-’15, while a pair of fifth-year senior transfers look like they can be difference makers as well.

Rokas Gustys posted multiple standout performances as a freshman, including an 11 and 16 double-double versus Delaware in early January. He averaged 9.5 points and 7.0 boards in 20.5 minutes per game in Baltimore, proving that he can be a physically imposing force on the block. At 6’9” 260 pounds, the only thing keeping this space-eating center from seeing the court more consistently is his propensity to commit fouls (7.4 fouls per 40 minutes).

As a freshman, Andre Walker’s playing time was far more limited, but promising all the same. Walker hauled in 11 boards and blocked four shots in his first collegiate game last November. He was even more foul-prone than Gustys (9.1 fouls per 40), but will have a chance to stake his claim for playing time during the nonconference slate.

6’8” Denton Koon is a graduate transfer who missed his last season because of an MCL injury. Mihalich says Koon, a double-digit scorer at Princeton as recently as ’12-’13, is a player who just knows how to win. The glue guy has a reputation as an excellent passer, and seems to have the inside track to start at the four.

6’10” Clemson transfer Ibrahim Djambo spent the summer playing alongside Drexel’s Mohamed Bah with the Malinese national team. Djambo is home attending to family matters this first semester, but should carve out a role upon returning in time for conference play.

While Hofstra seems fully capable of ransacking a league bereft of Lees, Thorntons, and Eathertons, it’s important to remember that many felt similarly following last season’s hot start. The Pride sat 13-4, and 4-0 in conference play, with Green setting Tanksley and Bernardi up for earth-scorching performances. Natural regression ensued, and the effects of a slim rotation started to wear on the Pride.

Heading into this season, a massive focus will be placed on keeping the team fresh. Hofstra’s bench accounted for just 26.4% of minutes played (290th in D-I), and lost its biggest asset (Dion Nesmith, a double-digit scorer who averaged 28.3 minutes per outing). Green, Tanksley, and Bernardi all averaged 32+ minutes per game, and saw their overall shooting percentages fall under 40% in CAA play.

Conditioning is crucial for this up-tempo team, and was a primary focus for both Tanksley and Bernardi this offseason. In order to ease Green’s burden, freshmen guards Desure Buie and Justin Foreman-Wright will be thrust into the fold from the get go. Mihalich stated that Buie will allow Green, who averaged a team-high 36.1 minutes per game, to play off the ball, while Foreman-Wright will give Hofstra a presence above the rim.

Koon’s presence will allow Malik Nichols to come off the bench, which proved to be beneficial for the Pride last season. In Hofstra’s CAA Tournament trip to Baltimore, the 6’6” senior’s tenacious defense made things difficult for smaller guards Marcus Thornton and Ron Curry. 6’5” junior wing Jamall Robinson was an All-CAA Rookie Team pick in ’13-’14, and should continue to be one of the first players off the bench.
Transfers Deron Powers and Hunter Sabety will redshirt this season, and help iron sharpen iron as members of the scout team. Powers is a 1,000-point scorer from Hampton, and will take over at point guard in ’16-’17. Sabety averaged a hair under 15 points per game in two seasons at D-III Tufts, and demonstrated the kind of efficiency that makes one believe he can play at a higher level.

Most teams in the CAA will struggle to keep pace with Hofstra’s fast but mistake-free guards. That 70-point barrier won’t be a good barometer in the 30-second shot clock era, which is why we’ll watch have to watch for improvements on a point-per-possession basis. Even a marginal improvement on the defensive end would have the Pride sitting pretty heading into conference play.

With an offensively potent rotation as strong as any in the league, it’s easy to see why the preseason prognosticators have pegged the Pride as the preeminent favorite to clip nets in Baltimore.

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