Joe Mihalich gets 15-game nonconference schedule to help ease transition of young Hofstra team as it turns page from seven-win season last year. (Photo courtesy of the YES Network)
Hofstra University attempts to embark upon a massive turnaround this season, with new head coach Joe Mihalich placed in charge of resurrecting a program that managed only seven wins amid the off-campus incident that saw four first-year players in the program dismissed and former coach Mo Cassara unfortunately axed at the end of the year.
With only four scholarship players returning for the 2013-14 season, Mihalich has had to hit the ground running, in his own words, to procure talent for this year's roster; and has managed to double the roster in just three months, bringing three true freshmen and two graduate transfers to Hempstead, not to mention three additional players who will sit out the 2013-14 season while completing their mandated year in residence. The smaller, nine-team Colonial Athletic Association also assists Mihalich greatly this season, as he gets the benefit of a 15-game nonconference schedule to prepare his team for a CAA season in which they can make great strides. Just as we did last week with Manhattan College and Steve Masiello, we've enlisted Mihalich to provide some insights and previews of what lies ahead as the Pride turn the page in search of their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2001:
Mihalich on his scheduling philosophy and opening the year with three games in five days: "Well, Jaden, scheduling is the hardest part of the job. It's not the most important, but scheduling is the hardest thing to do because dates have to work, locations have to work, you get into tournaments, you're home, you're away, travel, missed class time, it's endless, and there's only 340 teams. You're probably not going to start a home-and-home with Wyoming, right? It's an interesting topic, it's very much an inexact science. It's just not going to be perfect no matter how hard you try. What we try to do is to sharpen our teeth for league play, get the team prepared for league play, whether it's James Madison, College of Charleston, Drexel or Delaware, what have you. You want to play all kinds of teams, put them in tough situations, put them in good situations, and with our guys, it's going to be a thriller of a job. They're going to be young, and they're going to be learning on the job."
Friday, November 8th vs. Monmouth: The season starts at the Mack Sports Complex this year, as Hofstra takes on a Monmouth team moving into Mihalich's former home in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Led by third-year head coach King Rice, the Hawks bring junior swingman Andrew "Red" Nicholas back to the Jersey Shore as the leader on a young team whose core will be together for at least two years barring any transfers, as Monmouth does not have a senior on this year's roster after Dion Nesmith graduated and opted to spend his final year at Hofstra, adding an intriguing subplot to the opener. "First of all, they beat us last year by like 40 or something like that," (it was actually only 29, 91-62) Mihalich said of the Hawks, "so I'm sure we'll take some clips out of that tape and show it to our team so they can remember that. Their coach played at North Carolina, so he understands good basketball, and it will be a great test, it'll be a great game."
Sunday, November 10th vs. Fairleigh Dickinson and Sunday, January 5th at Fairleigh Dickinson: An unconventional nonconference home-and-home joins the Hofstra ledger this season, as the Pride will engage the Knights and new head coach Greg Herenda in a two-game series similar to what Stony Brook and FDU's Northeast Conference rival Sacred Heart scheduled against one another last season. Gone are forward Kinu Rochford and guard Melquan Bolding, which means the lone remaining New Jersey school in the NEC will have to rebuild around a supporting cast led by Danish sharpshooter Mathias Seilund.
Mihalich on the Hall of Fame tournament: "I love tournaments. Tournaments are like mini-seasons. It gets you ready for your playoffs, you know? We're excited about it."
Tuesday, November 12th at Louisville: Hofstra starts the year with three games in five days, and makes its first road trip as part of the Hall of Fame Tournament, in which they will square off against the reigning national champions in a preliminary round of that event. Rick Pitino no longer has Gorgui Dieng or Peyton Siva after they were drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, respectively; but Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell will be an effective tandem of burgeoning big men while Russ Smith returns for his senior season to anchor the Cardinal backcourt alongside Kevin Ware, who has said he will be ready for the season opener after his tragic leg injury in the Elite Eight against Duke, with both Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear returning on the wings. "It's Louisville, it's the national champions, it's a Hall of Fame coach, that's what we want to do," Mihalich said of the matchup with the Cardinals and how it fits into his schedule and vision for the program. "These are the teams you want to play. I remember Al McGuire, when I was an assistant at DeMatha, told the guys 'Use basketball, don't let basketball use you,' and I've always kind of thought about that with scheduling. Let's use our schedule to give these guys experiences they'll never forget the rest of their lives. I mean, these guys will never forget playing Louisville when they have a national championship banner hanging from the year before."
Tuesday, November 19th at Richmond: Chris Mooney will make fans forget about his uncharacteristic meltdown at the Atlantic 10 Tournament rather quickly, as he will once again have the Spiders positioned for a postseason appearance despite the losses of both Darien Brothers and Greg Robbins. Guards Cedrick Lindsay and Kendall Anthony, the latter of whom was the 2011-12 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, both return, as do one-time St. Anthony's (NJ) power forward Derrick Williams and sophomore shot blocker Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, who could be one of the pleasant surprises in the A-10 this season.
Saturday, November 23rd vs. Hartford: Hofstra travels to Mohegan Sun for the finals of the Hall of Fame Tournament and draws John Gallagher and the Hawks in their first Nutmeg State contest, with Hartford looking to make strides in the America East behind junior forward and leading scorer Mark Nwakamma and sharpshooting junior guard Yolonzo Moore II. If junior forward Nate Sikma's name sounds familar to some of our older fans, it's because former Milwaukee Bucks legend Jack Sikma is his father.
Sunday, November 24th vs. Belmont or Holy Cross: Based on how the preliminary game between the Bruins and Crusaders turns out, Hofstra will find out who their second Connecticut opponent will be. Belmont is a much younger team this season than the one Rick Byrd guided to the NCAA Tournament last year, but the Bruins will still be a force in the Ohio Valley despite the loss of all three of their leading scorers. The departures pave the way for senior swingmen J.J. Mann and Blake Jenkins to carry the team, and Mann was a 39 percent shooter from three-point range last season. As for Holy Cross, Milan Brown brings back both halves of his inside-outside combo of 6-9 senior Dave Dudzinski and 5-9 junior sharpshooter Justin Burrell, no relation to the former St. John's forward.Junior forward Malcolm Miller could be a force to be reckoned with on the glass.
Saturday, November 30th vs. Manhattan: Hofstra returns home to face a team Mihalich knows well from his days at Niagara, as the Pride take on Steve Masiello and the Jaspers for the third straight year, with Manhattan this time getting 6-10 forward and Maryland expatriate Ashton Pankey to join Rhamel Brown and Emmy Andujar up front while George Beamon and Michael Alvarado anchor the backcourt with Shane Richards serving as Manhattan's sixth man. "I have great respect for Steve Masiello," Mihalich said of the Jaspers' coach and leader of one of the prohibitive favorites to win the MAAC this season. "We had some great battles, the Niagara games were terrific, he does a great job, and this should be a great basketball game."
Wednesday, December 4th vs. Sacred Heart: For the second straight year, Hofstra hosts a Northeast Conference team on December 4th, as the Pride welcomed Wagner into Hempstead last year. The Pioneers have a new coach this season, as Dave Bike's retirement has allowed longtime assistant Anthony Latina to move into the head chair on the bench. Sacred Heart loses all-time great Shane Gibson, but gets continuity in the backcourt in the form of junior point guard Phil Gaetano and the returning Evan Kelley, with Gaetano finishing in the top five in the nation in assists last year. Louis Montes will once again be one of the stars of the Pioneer front line, with the X-factor being sophomore Tevin Falzon, who demonstrated his diamond in the rough value down the stretch as Sacred Heart fought for a spot in the NEC Tournament.
Saturday, December 7th at Southern Methodist: The Pride return the favor by traveling to Dallas after Larry Brown and the Mustangs came to Long Island last December, and will take on a member of the new American Athletic Conference that features an all-Lone Star State backcourt of senior Nick Russell and junior Jalen Jones, both of whom were SMU's leading scorers last season. Junior guard Ryan Manuel had a big game against Hofstra last year, as did Texas transfer Shawn Williams, and both of whom will return in an attempt to recapture the magic. "There's not that much difference between that and Louisville or Richmond," Mihalich told us with regard to Hofstra's trip to Texas. "I don't know that you would put our schedule in tiers, but if you did, SMU would be in our top tier."
Sunday, December 15th vs. Central Connecticut State: Howie Dickenman and the Blue Devils caught a major break when junior guard Kyle Vinales, who averaged nearly 22 points per game last season, decided to return to New Britain just weeks after announcing that he would transfer to a high-major program and having a change of heart after briefly committing to Toledo. Vinales will team with junior point guard Malcolm McMillan to anchor the backcourt while senior swingman Matt Hunter will have an increased workload as Joe Efese's graduation leaves Terrell Allen as the most experienced frontcourt player in Dickenman's rotation.
Monday, December 23rd at Siena: Hofstra returns a 2011-12 BracketBuster matchup with Siena in this pre-Christmas matchup at the Times Union Center by taking on the Saints and new head coach Jimmy Patsos, who arrives in Loudonville after nine years at Loyola. Despite the graduation of all-time program great O.D. Anosike, Siena will be an offensively gifted unit that will look to run the floor with greater ability under Patsos. Evan Hymes and Rob Poole will anchor the backcourt for the Saints this season, and Patsos' incoming freshman group led by Lavon Long and Marquis Wright should have a profound impact on the MAAC's largest fan base in their rookie seasons. "Jimmy is a real good friend, a great coach, and this is another great place to play," said Mihalich. "When you get it going like Fran McCaffery had it going, there's going to be 10,000 people there, and they won't be cheering for the opposing team," he said of the homecourt advantage in Albany.
Saturday, December 28th vs. George Washington: Mike Lonergan and the Colonials serve as Hofstra's second Atlantic 10 opponent this season, and the team from our nation's capital is a deceptively strong foe this year behind their pair of swingmen, senior Isaiah Armwood and sophomore Patricio Garino, the latter of whom will emerge as a household name if comes anywhere close to the form he displayed toward the end of his freshman season. "GW was a very, very young team last year, on the verge of winning some really big games," Mihalich said. "They're big, they're physical, it'll be a battle, a junkyard brawl."
Monday, December 30th vs. NJIT: The Pride's final nonconference home game will be a different NJIT than what many teams and fans had grown accustomed to over the years. Gone is the token low-major cupcake, replaced instead by a scrappy and valiant group that Jim Engles has molded into winners under the radar and away from all the hype. Do-it-all guard Chris Flores has graduated, as have each of the Highlanders' other three leading scorers. As the saying goes, there can only be one, and that man will be junior forward Daquan Holiday, who shot 57 percent from the field last season. "Jimmy Engles has brought that program a long, long way," Mihalich said of NJIT's coach, one who gets nowhere near the respect he deserves for taking the last remaining independent and turning the Highlanders from a one-win outfit into an above-.500 team. "They used to be one of those teams that you just get them on the schedule and you'll win, but not anymore. He's done a terrific job."
Thursday, January 2nd at Tulane: Hofstra opens 2014 with this rematch from a matchup at the Barclays Center last season, one in which Tulane dominated the second half on the way to a convincing victory. However, just like Monmouth in the season opener, Tulane is a young team as well, with each of their four leading scorers having departed to leave behind junior forward Trevante Drye; who averaged 4.6 points per game last year, as the top returning scorer for Ed Conroy's Green Wave.
Mihalich on Brian Bernardi, whose transfer to Hofstra from SMU was officially announced yesterday: "Brian's a terrific shooter, but more than that, he's a terrific player. That's what's more important. When all you're going to do is one thing, teams can defend that, but Brian's more than that, he's a basketball player. When Jeff Hathaway (Hofstra's athletic director) and I talked about rebuilding this program, we talked about doing it the right way and doing it brick-by-brick, and that's what we're doing. Brian might be a little bit bigger brick than some of the others, but we're excited to have him and everyone else in our program."
On graduate transfers Dion Nesmith and Zeke Upshaw: "They bring experience, they bring miles on their tires. They're ready to play right away. You know, freshmen are unknown guys, but these guys are licking their chops and waiting for this last year to make it one of the best years of their lives."
On freshmen Eliel Gonzalez, Chris Jenkins and Jamall Robinson: "We've only been with them for a couple of weeks, but they're great kids, and we're excited about what they can become."