(CBSNewYork)- For the second consecutive year, the Hofstra Pride men’s basketball team has earned the regular season Colonial Athletic Association title. They head to Washington, D.C. for the conference tournament this weekend as the #1 seed with an automatic bye to the quarterfinals on Sunday.
Joe Mihalich’s group will be looking for a different result from last year, when they came up just short of an NCAA Tournament bid, falling in the conference championship game to Northeastern 82-74. While last year’s team had an NBA draft pick in guard Justin Wright-Foreman leading the way, this year’s team has seen more of a balanced effort from their starting five, as all five starters are averaging 11-plus points.READ MORE: Suffolk County Police Officer In Critical Condition After Being Stabbed By Suspect Following Crash
As a result, the Pride finished the year 14-4 in conference play, a record that surprised even their head coach, who said on a conference call this week that he was worried about what would happen following the graduation of Wright-Foreman.
“At the beginning of the year, every other question was what are you going to do without Justin Wright-Foreman? I would lie and say don’t worry, but I was worried. These guys made believers out of me,” said Mihalich via teleconference. “No Justin Wright-Foreman, we graduated our two big guys and our guys just willed their way to tough wins. I’m proud of them. But, now the real season starts.”
With the disappointing end to last year’s conference tournament run, Mihalich feels he and his coaching staff don’t even need to mention to players that the program has “unfinished business.” With seniors Desure Buie, Eli Pemberton and Tareq Coburn all playing significant roles once again, this is a Hofstra group that remembers the pain of last season. Still, as Mihalich points out, the conference has been a tight affair all season, and he’s expecting nothing less from this weekend.
“It’s amazing how close these teams are. I don’t know if this is an answer to your question but I truly believe on Saturday night, or Sunday night, when the coaches all found out who they were going to play, all 10 coaches probably said, ‘Oh man, I don’t know if I want to play them,'” said Mihalich. “We finished first. And the two teams we might play (Drexel or UNCW)? My goodness, we had to play so well to win those four games. I can honestly say the old expression of ‘fear no one but respect everyone’ that holds true for all 10 schools.”
A big factor in pulling out wins in a lot of those close games has been the play of Buie. The senior was the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2019, but he has taken on more of the scoring load in Wright-Foreman’s absence, thriving in the process. Averaging 37 minutes a night, Buie poured in 18.5 points, 5.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game while shooting a career best 41.7% from beyond the arc. His head coach has high praise, calling Buie “the greatest story in college basketball” and saying he should be in the running for player of the year.READ MORE: 12-Year-Old Shot In Brooklyn Remains Hospitalized, Police Searching For Gunman
“He made his team win. He got his team to first place,” said Mihalich on the call. “What he does for our team on a daily basis, in the locker room, on the bus, at practice, team meal, there is no better leader in the world.”
The hope for Mihalich, Buie and the rest of the seniors is that the experiences of last season translate to success this time around. The program hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since Jay Wright’s last year in 2000-01. Interestingly enough, CBSSports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm has the Pride squaring off with Wright’s Villanova squad in the first round. In order to make that matchup happen, Hofstra will have to do something its never done: win the CAA tournament.
The odds appear to be in their favor, as Ken Pomeroy’s projections give the Pride a 29.6% probability of cutting down the nets.
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— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) March 2, 2020
It all begins on Sunday when Hofstra will face the winner of Drexel/UNCW in the quarterfinals at 12 p.m. EST. The semifinals and finals of the CAA tournament are set to air on CBS Sports Network.