By Joe Fay — SPORTS EDITOR
The Hofstra men’s basketball team returns to action this week with a Friday night opener against the Black Knights of Army West Point at 7 p.m. When the Pride take the floor, the Hofstra faithful will recognize many familiar faces – players who have the ability to make a special run if they play to their potential.
This year’s squad was picked to finish fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) in the preseason poll after an eighth-place finish last season. While Hofstra will find some tough competition at the top of the standings, this team has a high ceiling if all of the pieces fall into place.
Leading the charge will be junior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, who will look to build off of last year’s breakout season during which he averaged 18.1 points per game on 49.3 percent shooting. He made the second-most three pointers for Hofstra last season while shooting 37.2 percent. Wright-Foreman went from a bench player to Second Team All-CAA and ranked No. 3 in the conference in points per game.
Now that he is on everyone’s radar, the Queens native knows he needs to continue to step up and improve not only to meet his own expectations, but those of the fans that now have their eyes on him at all times. Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich understands the outside expectations of his star guard but knows that Wright-Foreman cannot be expected to always do it all. “You can’t expect him to make every shot, but some days he does … we don’t want to put too much pressure on him.”
Meanwhile, leading the frontcourt will be senior forward Rokas Gustys, who is looking to get back to where he wants to be after the 2016-17 campaign. “It was a tough season. Coming off that season … there’s a lot of things on my mind, a lot that I have to improve.”
During the 2015-16 season, Gustys was a force to be reckoned with, averaging 13.5 points and 13 rebounds per game. He was second in the nation in rebounding and tallied 22 double-doubles.
Last year, Gustys battled a nagging groin injury and wasn’t as dominant. While still ranking fourth in the country with 12 rebounds per game, his scoring dipped to 9.2 points per contest and he only recorded half as many blocks as the season before. Gustys also saw his free throw percentage go from a lackluster 43.6 percent to an abysmal 28 percent.
Of course, none of these stats are news to the big man. He was not at all satisfied with his performance last season, and has worked hard to get back to his best for his final season. Mihalich doesn’t want to put too much pressure on his senior, saying that Gustys “just needs to be [himself] and just keep getting his double-doubles, make layups and make some foul shots.”
Hofstra will have some more offensive firepower on the wing, with sophomore guard Eli Pemberton pouring in his share of points as well. “[Wright-Foreman and I], we’re both just bucket getters. Justin’s a veteran here, and I’m learning from him … we complement each other really well,” Pemberton said.
In his rookie campaign, Pemberton started 30 games and made a name for himself across the conference. He was named CAA Rookie of the Week three times on his way to 12.8 points per game and the third best three-point percentage in the CAA (40.9 percent). According to Mihalich, the sophomore has already cemented himself into the starting five with last year’s performance.
In addition to having those important pieces returning, Mihalich made it clear that he wants to spread the wealth this season so that his core unit doesn’t have to play 40 minutes per game. “They’ve got a great supporting cast; they don’t have to feel like they’ve got the weight of the world on their shoulders.”
The first of those second-tier options is junior guard Desure Buie, who will be making his return to the court from last season’s season-ending ACL injury. Buie played in eight games for the Pride last season before suffering an injury against Columbia in late November.
Buie’s return could be vital for Hofstra’s success this season, with the point guard position up for grabs. If he is able to put up solid numbers it could take a lot of pressure off of the other guards’ scoring abilities.
The other option at the point is transfer junior Kenny Wormley, who previously played at Siena and Indian Hills. Last season he averaged a respectable 8.8 points and 2.2 assists per game, a production that Hofstra would be glad to have. With weapons like Wright-Foreman and Pemberton on either side of him, the pass-first guard should have no problem increasing his assist numbers from last season.
Commenting on his two point guards, Mihalich believes their differences will complement one another. “Kenny’s long, active, has a real presence defensively … and then Desure is a hard guard [defensively]. He’s creative off the bounce and can make some plays.”
On the inside, Gustys will be complimented by transfer graduate forward Joel Angus III and senior Hunter Sabety. Angus missed all of last season due to injury, but should be an important part of the rotation for Hofstra this season. Meanwhile, Sabety has already proven his worth while filling in for Gustys last season. The 6-foot-9-inch center led the entire team with 40 blocks during the 2016-17 season.
The Pride will have uncharacteristic depth this season, thanks to a capable freshman class that includes forward Matija Radovic and guard Jalen Ray. Both will likely play meaningful minutes in their opening season with Hofstra.
Radovic has been named both Most Valuable Player and Best Defensive Player on the Serbian National team in the past, a welcome addition to an offensively driven Hofstra team in need of more defensive-minded players. Ray went to high school in Virginia, where he averaged 25 points, four rebounds and three assists per game. He was his conference Player of the Year and led his team to two conference titles.
The combination of the veteran talent and promising newcomers has Hofstra poised to make some noise this season. Mihalich has high expectations for his team, but also knows that the conference standings are going to be close and evenly matched this year.
“Charleston’s the team to beat…after that you can just throw a blanket over about four or five teams,” Mihalich said. “It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint … let’s see what happens.”
The journey for Hofstra’s first CAA championship begins Friday at the Mack, and as Gustys himself put it, “it’s all about three days in March.”