Three Thoughts: Vermont 85, Hofstra 81

Vermont remained perfect on Long Island with an 85-81 victory at Hofstra Wednesday evening in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational tournament. The Catamounts placed five players in double figures in the balanced attack.

With the victory, Vermont will now host a second round game against Radford. Here are three thoughts from Wednesday’s win over Hofstra:

Future is bright for Vermont. As noted above, Vermont placed five players in double figures in their win. That group was led by Ethan O’Day with 17, but the junior represented the only upperclassman in that contingent. Sophomore Dre Wills pitched in with 11 points and 7 rebounds while the freshman trio of Trae Bell-Haynes (13), Zach McRoberts (13), and Drew Urquhart (10) rounded out the scoring.

“These experiences are great for the young guys,” head coach John Becker said. “Just to play good teams in a postseason environment. VCU won this tournament in 2010 and the next year went to the Final Four. For a lot of young teams the opportunity to continue to play has usually paid off down the road. I hope that’s the case. It’s our seventh straight postseason so we’re used to it, but it’s the first one for these freshmen.”

With that young group continuing to gain experience in the CBI in addition to their natural development, the prospects look bright for Becker’s group. Vermont finished second in the America East this season behind eventual champion Albany before falling to Stony Brook in the conference semifinals. With that valuable experience in hand they should be picked near the top of the conference once more come November.

The sun in also shining on the other side of the fence. Joe Mihalich’s group had a resurgent year in Hempstead, and though they fell short of their goal with a heartbreaking loss to William & Mary in their own conference semifinals, there is plenty to look forward to at Hofstra.

The Pride will be a senior-laden group next season, led by the transfer trio of Juan’ya Green, Ameen Tanksley, and Brian Bernardi. Hofstra loses forward Moussa Kone and guard Dion Nesmith this year, but have plenty of capable shoes to fill their absences. Malik Nichols and Rokas Gustys should continue to be a sturdy frontcourt duo for Joe Mihalich’s squad, while the trio above should continue to make up for Nesmith’s loss.

“I don’t know where we’ll get picked next year, but we’re going to get picked high,” Mihalich said. “We’re going to embrace it, we’re going to enjoy it, we’re going to look forward to it and we’re going to learn a lot from this year. It’s exciting times for us. We’re down right now, but these are exciting times around here for Hofstra basketball.”

Expect the Pride to return in 2015-16 with lofty expectations. Their core returns with extensive playoff experience while having a strong age advantage on the competition.

It’s always tough to get over bad losses. Both Vermont and Hofstra saw their NCAA tournament dreams cut short in their conference semifinals. After working for that dream all year and seeing it end, it can be difficult to rev the engine once more for a lesser tournament.

Each team lost their final game on March 8, so they were on a level playing field with 10 days to recover. Still, with CBI bids not finalized until late on Selection Sunday, neither team had a lot of time to get their minds right for another tournament. In the end, it may have been Vermont’s youth which gave them the upper hand in preparation.

“If this was my team last year with all those seniors and the expectation was to go to the NCAA tournament, in that case I think it can be [tough to recover],” Becker said. “Hector Harold, our senior captain, he wanted to continue to play, and for our freshmen this is excited for them. We took six days off from practice and then we practiced three days before this, so we were able to get away from each other a little bit. We came back with a better appreciation for each other, and an excitement that we get to continue to play.”

For an older group like Hofstra, balancing that practice time with the drive to play can prove to be more difficult. With the uncertainty of whether or not they would actually be able to continue their season, managing those ten days can be a challenge.

“I told the guys there’s no sure thing about being in a postseason tournament,” Mihalich said. “Last Thursday and Friday we had to practice knowing there’s a good chance on Friday night or Saturday or Sunday that we wouldn’t get a phone call. We didn’t play for 10 days, but neither did they (Vermont). It’s an inexact science and it’s hard to gauge what you should do. The layoff, the spirit to play, I think the guys had it at least through the week.”

Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.

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