Hofstra shoots for NCAA berth

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A packed Mack Sports Complex with new state-of-the-art video boards greeted the Hofstra men’s basketball team for its home opener on Nov. 9.

With high expectations for the Pride this season, sixth-year Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich hopes the large crowds continue throughout the winter. Hofstra, which was picked to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Association, is seeking its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001.

“It’s the best crowd that we have had since I’ve been here,” said Mihalich of the 4,645 attendance for Hofstra’s 79-61 season-opening win against Mount St. Mary’s. “We talk all the time about having that sixth man with a huge crowd and it definitely gives our players a lift.”

Hofstra returns reigning CAA Player of the Year Justin Wright-Foreman, who was the nation’s fifth-leading scorer a season ago. The 6-foot-2 guard tested the NBA waters after his junior season before pulling out just before the draft. He also gained valuable offseason experience participating in NBA veteran Chris Paul’s CP3 Elite Guard Camp this past August.

“He really is a gifted scorer,” said Mihalich of Wright-Foreman, who tallied 34 points in a 76-72 loss at Marshall on Nov. 11. “He’s incredible.”

Wright-Foreman and junior guard Eli Pemberton were the nation’s third-highest returning scoring duo last season. Pemberton, who averaged 15.9 points per game is part of a deep backcourt with Wright-Foreman that also features returning senior guards Desure Buie and Kenny Wormley. Sophomore guard Jalen Ray also returned after a clutch freshman season in which he hit 48 three- pointers including two game-winners in the final seconds against Monmouth and Towson.

“They all shoot it pretty well and have decent skills and quickness,” said Mihalich of his multiple guard options. “Whoever is on the floor will keep defenses honest.”

Junior 6-8 forward Stafford Trueheart brings experience to the frontcourt after a sophomore season in which he averaged nearly a block a game. The Pride did lose a significant rebounding presence with the graduation of 6-10 forward/center Rokas Gustys, who ranked third nationally as a senior and is now playing professionally in Europe. Graduate transfers Jacquil Taylor of Big Ten power Purdue and Dan Dwyer from Penn of the Ivy League are being counted on to fill much of the rebounding void.

“I call them the two-headed monster,” Mihalich said of the 6-10 Taylor and 6-8 Dwyer. “They complement each other well.”

Mihalich set up a challenging early non-conference schedule with November road games at Marshall, Maryland and VCU. Hofstra returns home this Wednesday to face Cal State Fullerton, an NCAA Tournament team from last year. The Pride will then have big home games against Siena on Nov. 28, Monmouth on Dec. 5 and Rider on Dec. 8 along with a road battle at Long Island rival Stony Brook on Dec. 19.

“If you want to be good you have to play good teams,” said Mihalich, who prior to arriving at Hofstra won 265 games as head coach at Niagara University “It’s all about getting better.”

Hofstra’s quest for a CAA title commences with two home games against longtime conference rivals Delaware on Dec. 28 at 7 p.m. and Drexel on Dec. 30 at 4 p.m.  The Pride will then host preseason favorite and another regional rival, Northeastern, on Jan. 5 at 4 p.m. Defending CAA champion College of Charleston, who was picked to finish second in the preseason poll, makes a visit to the Mack Sports Complex on Jan. 19 for a 4 p.m. tipoff.

“Northeastern is very good and Charleston is very good and then there is a blanket of five or six teams who could win the league,” Mihalich said. “The CAA schedule is when it is time to buckle in.”