Shortly after naming his staff of assistant coaches, Joe Mihalich opened up to us about first seven weeks at Hofstra since arriving from Niagara. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Beach)
For the first time since his introductory press conference on April 10th, we were fortunate to have some time to speak to Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich yesterday afternoon, just hours after he officially announced his staff, which includes former Hofstra great Speedy Claxton in addition to his assistant coaches at Niagara, who all follow him to Hempstead as Mihalich prepares for his first season as Mo Cassara's replacement at the helm of the Pride.
After a 12-minute, 28-second reunion with a coach we came to know during his time at Niagara, we emerged with a clearer knowledge of what Hofstra is up against as they start a new era in another six months, and the following is a transcript of our conversation:
Jaden Daly: Seven weeks in, what has it been like since you took over last month? You've already hit the ground running, and we see that with five players coming in, and now five assistant coaches. What's it like since you left Niagara?
Joe Mihalich: Well, it's been exciting, it's been exhilarating, it's been a grind, it's been challenging, it's been a lot of things, but the prevailing feeling is that it's just so exciting, you know? This is just a tremendous place and a great opportunity, and the place is special, I really believe it. Hofstra's a special place, and that's why I feel so lucky to be here, and the seven weeks have been incredible. We've had to undo a bunch of things, we've had to do a bunch of things; whether it was recruiting, undoing or doing, whether it was scheduling, undoing some things, we've been able to do them. It's far from done, we've got a long way to go and it's just a start, but I do feel like we've done some things, and we can't wait to be doing some more.
JD: Compared to 1998 when you took over at Niagara, what sets this situation apart?
JM: I guess there are a lot of similarities, but I think what sets Hofstra apart is that when I got to Niagara, there wasn't quite as much to do recruiting-wise, and here there's a ton of that, all we've got is four players. So there's four guys here, and there were a couple of verbal commitments that were probably not the right thing for both parties, so as I said, we kind of (had to) undo those things, and then we had to replace them with some guys we feel could eventually help us win a championship here in this conference. I guess the cupboard was full when I started at Niagara, and here it's just kind of bare, but we're getting there and it's getting closer. We're making progress, there's no doubt about that.
JD: Three incoming freshmen, and Juan'ya (Green) and Ameen (Tanksley) transferred in and will be eligible for the 2014-15 season. What does each of the newcomers bring to the table? I know Jamall (Robinson) committed to you at Niagara and then followed you when you took the job at Hofstra.
JM: Yeah, what do they bring? They all bring something different, you know? Jamall is a versatile guy, he's a basketball player, he's physically ready to help; which most freshmen are not, in fact, all three of our freshmen are physically ready to go. They have good size and good strength, good bodies. We have to wait and see on the endurance and so forth because of the length of the season, but physically, they're ready to go. Jamall can play a couple of different positions, he's a winner. He played on a high school team at Paul VI with a great, great coach who helped him get better and better all the time and made a winner out of him. Chris Jenkins is a terrific shooter. There's something special about a guy who can shoot the basketball, and he can really, really shoot, he had seven threes in one quarter; so when you have a guy like that, he's going to stretch the defense, he's going to open things up for everyone else, keep the defense honest. With him, you can count by threes instead of counting by twos, because he can really shoot it, and then Eliel Gonzalez is a point guard. As they say, it all starts in the beginning, and he's a lead guard. When the ball is in his hands, good things happen. He doesn't look quick, but he is, and he's got good size, he might be 6-2 or 6-3. Chris is probably a good, solid 6-3 at least, and then Jamall's 6-5, 6-6, so we love their readiness, so to speak.
JD: You built your teams at Niagara similarly, and on that note, to have Juan'ya and Ameen follow you there; we know what they can do, they helped you win a regular season title last year, Juan'ya almost won (MAAC) Player of the Year as a sophomore. To have them come back with a couple of years left, knowing you and your staff, they're going to be familiar with everything, all that's changing are the jerseys and the numbers. How much of a comfort level does that give you with this team and everybody else coming back with a year under their belt (when Green and Tanksley are eligible) to add them in?
JM: It's a big plus, because not only do the coaches all understand each other and what we're trying to do, now you've got a couple of guys that do, too. Half the people in the gym are going to know what's going on as opposed to everybody, but it will really help, and those guys are really great guys. They're going to push the guys ahead of them for a year. We've been telling recruits "listen, you're going to get pushed every year, every day by these guys, they're going to make you better," and they are. They're special players, they're really, really good players, especially Juan'ya, you know, my goodness. He just has an incredible basketball IQ, he's physically capable of doing a lot of things, and this year off is going to make him even better.
JD: You mentioned after the Manhattan game last year that he should change his name to "Win'ya" because everything he does just breeds winning, and with the guards in the CAA, how much do you think the switch in leagues will help him?
JM: It's a league with some great, great guards. Delaware's got a couple of great guards...maybe I shouldn't start mentioning schools, but there are so many good guards in the league, but those guys just jump off the page at you. He'll fit right in, help us keep pace with the league, they have great guards.
JD: To have Speedy Claxton come on your staff, he was at your press conference, so you guys know each other already, to have a homegrown talent; someone that not only knows what it's like to play at Hofstra and that atmosphere, but his NBA background too, ten years and he won a championship, how does that resonate with a recruit to have someone on the staff that says "hey, I played at this level, I know what it takes, and I can help get you there?"
JM: You're right, you can't put a price tag on that. In some ways, you kind of answered the question yourself, I mean, he's done it. Everything you talk about, he's done it. He won an NBA championship, he's played in the league for ten years, he was a terrific, terrific basketball player, so he's someone that can help build a program. All those things that you talk to recruits about, there he is right there, Speedy Claxton did it.
JD: Going into next season, realistically, what are your expectations with the four incumbents from Mo (Cassara) 's team last year and the three who are eligible right away?
JM: What are our expectations? We're excited about the year. We expect to have a chance to win every game, that's the only way to approach it, I don't know how else you do it, that's all I've ever done. Every game is different, every challenge is different. It comes down to attitude and what kind of attitude you're going to bring, and I'll tell you what, the people on this team, I love their attitudes. Our expectations are that we're going to do everything we can to get better, and be a better team in December than we are in November, a better team in January than December, and on and on and on, so that by the end of the year, we'll have a chance to win the league.
JD: In terms of your style, is there any emphasis on one side of the ball over the other this year?
JM: It's funny, we have a reputation of being just an offensive team, and we kind of smile behind closed doors because we feel like we might not be the best defensive team in the country, but we feel like we're an effective defensive team. I don't know if you can emphasize one over the other, if you're a good offensive team, you'd better be a good defensive team, or else you're going to be taking the ball out of the net every time as opposed to forcing some turnovers and missed shots.
JD: Going into the nonconference schedule, are there any other games that haven't been announced or made public at all that you're looking at?
JM: We're still putting some finishing touches on it. In general, I think what you want to do with your nonconference schedule is sharpen your teeth for league play, you know? So we're at Louisville, we're at Richmond, we're in a tournament where we're going to play Hartford and Holy Cross and Belmont, we're at SMU, we're at Tulane, we'll have some local teams that come here and play, we're playing GW, we're playing Manhattan. It's a challenging schedule, it's a little bit of everything, it's what you want to get yourself ready for league play.
JD: In time, do you see trying to get some of the local schools to play you, such as maybe St. John's or Fordham, some of the other local teams that don't really play each other as much?
JM: Yeah, I think that would be great. There's nothing better than local rivalries. I like to work real closely with (athletic director) Jeff Hathaway, he's a star in his profession, in his world, and it's such a plus for me to lean on him in certain areas; whether it be a scheduling idea here or a fundraising idea there, he just brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise that he's someone to lean on, but we love our local rivalries, I think it's great for the game and great for our fans.
JD: Speaking of Jeff, how much has he helped in the transition over the last seven weeks, and knowing him as long as you have, how much easier has he made this process for you?
JM: Well, as I said, he's exceptional. I've said so many times, people have heard me say, I'm sure you've heard me say it, coaches always say "is that a good job?" Well, it's a good job if you have a good president and a good AD, and we have a great president, we have a great AD, and they're people that want to win, they want to do it the right way, they're leaders, and to have those people to lean on is just a true value.
JD: Looking ahead to Niagara and what you leave behind for Chris Casey as he takes over, Antoine (Mason) is still there, Marvin Jordan is still there, they're still a competitive team in a wide open MAAC that welcomes Quinnipiac and Monmouth. Where do you see them as far as how well they'll be able to remain in contention?
JM: Well, you mentioned some key guys. I think they'll be right there with all of the good teams. Antoine Mason can score at will, Marvin Jordan's as good a shooter as anybody in the league, they have a point guard that was one of the most underrated freshmen in the league and that's Tahjere McCall, there's a transfer from Rhode Island, Rayvon Harris, that was sitting out, Joe Thomas is going to be coming back, they're going to be okay. They're going to be just fine.