What difference a few months can make. Last March, Delaware was the class of the Colonial Athletic Association. Just 304 days ago, the Blue Hens dispatched Hofstra 87-76 in the CAA tournament en route to an appearance in the NCAA tournament against Tom Izzo and Michigan State.
Delaware reached that date with the Spartans on the backs of five double-digit scorers led by the trio of Devon Saddler (19.7 ppg), Davon Usher (19.1 ppg), and Jarvis Threatt (18.0 ppg). Saddler became the Blue Hens’ leading scorer with 2,222 points while Usher set a single season record with 679 points last year.
Supporting those top three were Carl Baptiste (11.1 ppg) and Kyle Anderson (11.0 ppg). Of that quintet, Anderson is the lone returner this season, leading the 1-12 Blue Hens with 14.8 ppg.
Hofstra entered Monday night having dropped eight games in a row to Delaware, the last coming in that CAA quarterfinal matchup last year. The Pride emphatically ended that run with a 71-58 home victory Monday evening.
“What I learned right away is that this is a great rivalry,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said. “It goes back to the days when Speedy Claxton was playing. That’s one of the things you pick up right away, that it’s one of those games you want to win.”
The win marks the first time Hofstra has started 2-0 in league play since opening the CAA portion of their schedule 5-0 in 2010-11. On the other side of the coin, Delaware fell to 0-2 in league play for the first time since 2006-07. That was also Monté Ross’ first year at the helm of the Blue Hens.
Delaware’s drop-off is understandable, given the loss of talent from their championship team last season. That talent led the Blue Hens to a 39-13 record over the last three years, making them one of 11 schools in the nation to top the remainder of their conference by six or more games over that span.
The team at the bottom of the CAA during those three years? You guessed it: Hofstra. The Pride posted just a 12-40 record over that time frame. In contrast to the cause for Delaware’s decline, the reason for Hofstra’s meteoric rise has been the infusion of quality players Mihalich has brought to the program.
Entering Monday, first-year Hofstra players have accounted for 76% of the Pride’s points, 70% of their rebounds, 75% of their assists, 74% of their steals, and 79% of their blocks. Of the program’s newcomers, none have been more vital to Hofstra’s success than the duo of Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley.
Green (named the MAAC rookie of the year in 2011-12) and Tanksley followed Mihalich from Niagara to Hofstra prior to the 2013-14 season. This year, Tanksley leads the Pride with 19.1 ppg while Green has done it all with 17.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, and 6.4 apg.
Supplementing the Niagara duo have been SMU transfer and sharpshooter Brian Bernardi (12.6 ppg) and junior college addition Malik Nichols (6.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) along with the returning group of Dion Nesmith (11.0 ppg) and Moussa Kone (6.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg).
Despite that slew of productive transfers in addition to the returning core, it was yet another first-year player who stole the show Monday night against Delaware.
Less than three minutes into the game, Kone was forced to the bench after picking up a quick second foul. Freshman Rokas Gustys, who was playing just his second game after missing seven games due to a leg injury, was phenomenal in relief.
The Lithuanian native shattered previous career highs with his first double-double on 11 points and 16 rebounds, 10 of which came in the first half. He also swatted away five blocked shots without turning the ball over once himself. And he did it all in just 20 minutes of play.
“In November and December, the thing we’re most proud of is we won as many games as we won and we did it without either of those guys,” Mihalich said of Gustys and Kone, who both missed time due to injury. “Now we’ve got Moussa back and he’s getting his game speed back and Rokas is back. That’s 19 points and 19 rebounds from that spot that those guys put up tonight. That’s pretty good production right there.”
“I think I’m getting better every day, in every practice,” Gustys said. “It’s only my second game back so I’m trying to improve every time. The offense doesn’t always go well, but I put the most focus on defense.”
Under Mihalich’s leadership and recruiting ingenuity the Pride are back on top of the CAA, and one need only look at Delaware’s recent sustained success for a glimpse of what may be to come. With Nesmith and Kone as the only departures come season’s end, this Hofstra team is built to last.
For the first time in a long time, the future looks bright in Hempstead.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.