This time last year, the Hofstra men’s basketball team was putting the finishing touches on a stellar run in conference action, beating the College of Charleston at home capping a six-game win streak to end the season, and to assure the Pride the top seed heading into the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament, and the first-round bye that comes with it.
This year, it’s not going to be so simple.
Despite capping off the regular season by winning five of its last eight games, the Pride finds itself at the bottom looking up as the conference tourney begins. Hofstra will hit the floor on Friday night at 6 p.m. as the eighth seed, and will have to win four games in order to raise the CAA trophy.
A No. 8 seed winning the entire tournament, especially in a conference with the quality of competition that the CAA brings, would be unexpected to say the least. But that’s part of what makes tournament season so special, the idea that any team could string together a few wins and make a run for the CAA crown.
First up for the Pride will be the Fightin’ Blue Hens from the University of Delaware, in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup to kick off the CAA Tournament festivities down in North Charleston.
Hofstra swept the season series with Delaware this year, but both games were relatively close, and the Pride can’t afford to fall into a false sense of security with UDel. The Blue Hens held an 11-point lead over Hofstra at halftime the last time these two teams met, with the Pride needing a big second half to put Delaware away.
If the Pride does advance to Saturday, then waiting will be top-seeded University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW). The Seahawks have beaten Hofstra in four of their last five meetings, including an overtime thriller in last year’s CAA championship game.
UNCW has been the odds-on favorite to win this conference all season, and a 14-3 mark in CAA action only bolstered those odds.
However, despite sitting towards the bottom of the CAA standings, Hofstra played two very close, ultra-competitive games with the Seahawks this season.
Hofstra and UNCW have developed quite a nice rivalry over the last two seasons, and there’s no reason to believe that a potential matchup between these two wouldn’t be a tight, competitive affair.
It’s a lot easier to win as an underdog than as a favorite, and as the Seahawks would surely be favored in this one, Hofstra would not be faced with the pressure that comes with grabbing the top seed.
So what needs to happen for Hofstra to shock the rest of the Colonial, and secure the program’s first bid to the NCAA Tournament in 16 seasons?
It has to start on the defensive end for the Pride. The old saying “defense wins championships” has been used so often throughout the years that it’s almost become a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true.
Hofstra’s strength doesn’t lie on the defensive end, with Joe Mihalich’s team more likely to hang 90 points on a team than to hold that team to 60 points.
But even with the high-powered scoring that Hofstra has brought to the table these last few seasons, it still hasn’t brought home the CAA trophy.
This team will need to get stops, and a lot of them, if it wants to get through UNCW. Many a time this season, fans have seen the Pride come out just a basket or two behind, and it usually comes as a result of late-game scoring from the opposition.
Another trend that has plagued the Pride in recent weeks is the team’s habit of stumbling early. The Pride was outscored by 50 points in the first half of games this season, but outscored opponents by 72 points in the second half.
11 of the Pride’s 16 losses have come by less than 10 points, and five of those losses were one or two-possession games. If the Pride could start strong on the offensive end – and finish strong on the defensive end – then this team might sneak up on opponents.
One player that certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone is sophomore sensation Justin Wright-Foreman, who has scored double-figures in his last 21 games. Wright-Foreman will most likely be the focus of opposing defenses, as he has been the most consistent offensive presence for Hofstra this year.
While he’s been having a monster season, the Pride will need to see production from other players too. The rest of the Hofstra starting lineup features guys that could score in bunches as well as anyone, but a lack of consistency has shown in the team’s record.
In these last two games of the season, Rokas Gustys has shown flashes of his stellar 2015-16 season, where no one seemed to have an answer for him on the glass. It’s been an up-and-down year for Gustys, who missed a few games due to an injury, but if the best big man in the CAA plays at the top of his game, then he could be a matchup nightmare for the rest of the conference.
The same goes for the rest of Hofstra’s stable of guards – guys like Deron Powers, Eli Pemberton and Brian Bernardi. The Pride is at its best when all of these guys are connecting from three-point territory.
Pemberton is capable of doing a lot of damage in different ways, as is Powers. For Bernardi, who’s more of a three-point specialist, his shot will need to be on for this Hofstra team to make a splash this weekend. At his hottest, Bernardi could shoot the three-ball as well as anyone in the conference.
The Pride will kick off the CAA Tournament Friday night, the first time that Hofstra’s played on the opening day of the tournament since the 2013-14 season, Mihalich’s first year at the helm of the Pride.
In the years since Hofstra joined the CAA back in 2001, a team playing in the opening round of the tournament has never advanced to the finals, let alone taken home the trophy.
It’s going to take defense, consistency and a little bit of that vintage March madness, but this Hofstra team may just have what it takes to rewrite history.