By Kevin Carroll — SPORTS EDITOR
Preseason rankings really don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. They provide an indicator of how the media thinks the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) is going to shake out this season, but as any coach or player will tell you: it’s not about where you start, it’s where you finish.
However, that doesn’t mean that a ranking of No. 7 in the CAA polls is going to sit well with the Hofstra women’s basketball team as they prepare to open up the season against the University of Maryland Baltimore County on Sunday, Nov. 12.
“We could do better than seventh … this is motivation for us,” said senior Aleana Leon at Hofstra’s annual Media Day event, held on Oct. 25. “We work harder every day, and we’re going to show that we’re better than a [ranking of] seven.”
The Pride didn’t have a very successful 2016-17 campaign, undoubtedly a huge factor in their ranking heading into this year. A hot start in non-conference play faded as Hofstra went 5-13 in CAA action, finishing No. 9 in the conference. Hofstra did pick up a win in the CAA tournament over Towson before falling victim to the eventual CAA champs Elon University in the quarterfinals.
That would mark the second straight year that Hofstra got bounced in the quarterfinals, as the Pride’s stellar run to the Elite Eight of the WNIT two seasons ago was preceded by a loss to Northeastern in the 2016 CAA tourney.
It’s a trend that the Pride are going to look to get away from this year, and with an experienced group returning to the floor led by All-CAA first teamer Ashunae Durant, this year could be a return to form.
Last year, Durant averaged 16.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, one of only two players in the entire conference to average a double-double. Durant has been near-impossible to guard since her freshman year, and now a senior, the forward is looking to add a CAA championship to her impressive list of accolades. With the top of the conference looking as stout as ever, Durant recognizes the importance of getting into that title picture.
“I want to at least be in that top four by the end of the season and [heading into] the CAA playoffs,” Durant said.
Durant has been a rock in this Hofstra lineup for four seasons, there’s no doubt. For this team to make a wave in the CAA, it’s going to be crucial that Durant gets a healthy dose of support on the floor from her teammates. At times, last year’s team seemed to rely a bit too heavily on Durant, to the detriment of the team.
Outside of Durant, only Krystal Luciano averaged more than 10 points per game last season. The Pride were close to the bottom of the CAA in most offensive statistical categories last season, and with Luciano graduating, that’s going to leave a hole on offense that needs to be filled.
Leon will be a top option for the Pride, as the senior experienced a breakout season in 2016-17. She started 29 games and averaged just under 10 points per game, and her energy on both ends of the floor will be a big lift for the Pride.
Around those two are returners like forward Marianne Kalin and Olivia Askin, who will be the Pride’s most immediate three-point option to open up the season. Ana Hernandez Gil also figures to be a big presence on the floor once she’s completely healed up from a leg injury.
Hernandez Gil showed flashes of a great touch from beyond the arc, and her game could add another dimension to Hofstra’s offense that it will need to get to the next level.
The point guard position will be head coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey’s most interesting spot to tackle. The Pride are without Luciano, who was a vocal leader and dynamic on both ends of the floor.
Hofstra did land a highly-regarded transfer from the University of Michigan, Lauren “Boogie” Brozoski, who will most likely run point for the Pride. The only catch: Brozoski will not be eligible to play until after the end of the fall semester, at the end of December. Mikiyah Croskey, a sophomore forward, will also be on the sidelines until the end of the fall.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a point guard-by-committee until Boogie gets there,” Kilburn-Steveskey said. “E’Lexus Davis has been separating herself in practice so now let’s have carryover to the court.”
It’s a unique situation the Pride find themselves in. These two players may very well change the entire complexion of the team and may add a whole new wrinkle to the Pride that will be difficult for opposing coaches to plan for.
“It’s complicated because you’re trying to get Boogie reps but she’s not going to be playing with the starting team all the time,” Kilburn-Steveksey said. “I wish I could tell you there was a secret equation.”
For now, the point looks like it will be handled by a combination of Davis and Petja Krupenko. Davis started a pair of games last year in place of an injured Luciano, but struggled with turnovers, committing 45 of them compared to just 16 assists.
Fans will also have to monitor the progress of a couple more new faces, particularly Sica Cuzic. A 5-foot-10 guard, Cuzic comes to the Pride by way of Salt Lake City Community College, where she averaged 8.8 points per game. As one of the tallest guards on the floor at any given time, Cuzic could present a matchup nightmare for opposing guards.
It may be a bit much to ask for the Pride, who are still relatively young as a group, to go up with conference stalwarts like James Madison University and Elon, who will be as formidable as always this year. There are a few unknowns, a few weak spots and a very tough road for this team to navigate on its way to the CAA Tournament.
But a ranking as low as No. 7 in the conference doesn’t do this team justice. Kilburn-Steveskey is as good a coach as anyone in the conference, and this team will be another in a long line of gritty, defensive-minded Hofstra teams.
This team’s ability to impact the game on the other end of the floor, to score baskets and put pressure on opposing offenses, will ultimately be the biggest factor in whether or not this team could rise above that ranking, and more importantly, rise to the top of the CAA.