One thing head coach Joe Mihalich knew when he took over on April 10 at Hofstra was that he needed players and fast.
With just four scholarship players, Mihalich rebuilt the roster in multiple ways: by adding a solid core of freshmen, followed by adding transfers like Brian Bernardi, Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley who have to sit out this season, and reaching out to get graduate transfers to complete his roster overhaul.
“I mean you literally call anybody you’ve ever talked to in 35 years of coaching,” Mihalich said of inheriting a team with four scholarship players when he took the job. “I just reached into my rolodex and looked in the Chicago file and some of my contacts in Chicago and one thing led to another.”
Using those contacts he found Zeke Upshaw, who had graduated from Illinois State and was looking to use the NCAA graduate transfer rule to play one final season. After playing under two coaches for the Redbirds, Upshaw found himself crunched for playing time after three seasons.
“It’s a blank canvas,” said Mihalich about his pitch to Upshaw. “We don’t really have anybody like you. You’re going to have a great opportunity. You’re going to have to earn it, we can’t promise you anything, you have to earn it.”
Upshaw said his original expectations were to come in and play between 20 to 30 minutes a game and a be a veteran leader, for someone who entered this season with a career-high of 21 minutes.
“I knew I would be a leader knowing I would be one of the older guys on the team, but once the year started coach gave me and Dion [Nesmith] a bigger role,” Upshaw said adding that his role would be to provide scoring as well as leadership.
Since the start of the season, Upshaw has shattered almost every record to his name in college basketball, showing that Mihalich’s fast pace style of play complements his game. On Tuesday, Upshaw shattered his career-high for points with 37 in Hofstra’s 74-63 overtime loss at Richmond, his first 30-point game since tossing a few together in high school.
“I sort of got lucky and got hot, but I just wanted to be aggressive,” Upshaw said. “I was trying to get my team a win but we came up short.”
Despite coming up short Upshaw surpassed his career-high for points and, in that game attempted more free throws (18) than he had made the previous three seasons. He has already set new career-highs in every statistical category except steals and blocked shots through four games this season. His 37 points were the most by a Hofstra player since Charles Jenkins scored 40 in 2010.
“I can be an essential piece to a team, I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned about myself is that I can be a big part of a team and play big minutes and be a leader,” Upshaw said.
Even after a long trip home and a day off Wednesday from practicing, Mihalich said he saw his graduate students working on their games from his office window.
“We were off yesterday and I looked out my office door and he was on the floor, he came in on his own to do some stuff,” Mihalich said of Upshaw. “I told him when we recruited him, I said, ‘Look let’s make this the best year of your life.’ He’s a believer in that. We’re hoping we can build on [Tuesday] and have some other good games.”
In three seasons at Illinois State after redshirting his freshman year, Upshaw totaled 100 points while coming off the bench in every single game he appeared in. Except for a game where he struggled with foul trouble against Fairleigh Dickinson, he has rarely seen the bench for the Pride.
“I didn’t have as big of a role as I did now,” Upshaw said. “Coach Mihalich expects a lot more out of me and he gets on me and Dion especially because we’re the leaders. He gets on us more, but I actually like that. He’s very encouraging and he teaches me so much every day.”
After his 37 point outburst against Richmond, Upshaw leads the Pride with 83 points on the season, and his output from Tuesday is one point shy of his entire sophomore season output for the Redbirds.
“Honestly, it wasn’t easy to keep that confidence from last year not playing as much as I wanted to, but this summer I just tried to get a new attitude,” Upshaw said. “I was just playing as much basketball, as I did this summer, I just got my confidence back. I’ve actually started the year off better than I thought I would.”
Ryan Restivo covers Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.