It’s hard to come up with a student-athlete with a more tumultuous career than recent Hofstra graduate Moussa Kone. The 6’8” forward from the Bronx represented the Pride’s senior-most member during the 2014-15 season and was the only member of the team to don the Hofstra uniform over the last four years.
Kone’s tenure in Hempstead was marred by scandal and transition, but ended with bright hopes for the future. While a sophomore in 2012, four of Kone’s teammates were suspended due to their involvement in a string of robberies which left a stain on the University and forced Kone to play more minutes than anticipated.
Following a 7-25 record during that 2012-13 season, Hofstra announced the firing of head coach Mo Cassara. A search for the Pride’s new head coach concluded in less than three weeks with the hiring of Joe Mihalich from Niagara University.
“One thing for sure is it’s a whole different environment,” Kone said of the changes around Hofstra. “The whole coaching staff – that’s been a big change and a big help as well for the program. We have coaches who are in there for the kids. Everyone who comes in there, they want them to work as hard as they can because they see that potential in you.”
With Mihalich’s entrance came both a new attitude and new players. Though current stars Juan’ya Green, Ameen Tanksley, and Brian Bernardi all sat out the 2013-14 season, the transitional Hofstra squad was bolstered by immediate contributors Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith.
Upshaw, a graduate transfer from Illinois State, came to Hofstra after averaging just 2.5 ppg but evolved into one of the most improved players in college basketball, averaging 19.8 ppg in 2013-14. With Upshaw the unexpected star, Nesmith quickly became his right-hand man following a personal odyssey that ended with his enrollment at Hofstra.
After averaging a middling 8.1 ppg as a junior at Monmouth, Nesmith averaged 13.3 ppg and 4.2 apg for a slightly improved Hofstra team which finished the year with a 10-23 record. Though the Pride improved by only three games from Cassara’s final year, there was finally a feeling of legitimacy to look forward to.
“I don’t really know what it was like before, but from the way everyone else talks about it, it’s a different culture,” Nesmith said of the aura around Hofstra. “Guys do what they’re supposed to do now with basketball and school. The workouts are hard, we practice hard, and that’s the reason why we were winning.”
With the addition of Green, Tanksley, and Bernardi in 2014-15, the Pride finally took their first leap forward. A successful 20 win season was cut short in heartbreaking fashion in a 92-91 2OT loss to William & Mary on a last-second 3-pointer from Daniel Dixon in the CAA semifinals.
Despite the heartbreak, the feeling of improvement remained ever strong. Despite the departures of Kone and Nesmith, Hofstra appears to be one of the favorites to take the CAA crown in 2015-16.
“You can see gradually as the years came around after my second year that the school was changed.” Kone said. “We went from winning seven games to winning 20 so it’s going to just keep getting better from there. That’s just a big accomplishment from when I started to now.”
With Kone and Nesmith moving on to the next level and pursuing professional careers, the support of players and coaches becomes paramount. Thanks to the Gotham Hoops Invitational taking place at nearby Adelphi University, plenty of Hofstra staff were able to support the duo.
The presence of former teammate Stephen Nwaukoni at the inaugural Gotham Hoops Invitational last year prior to a successful year playing overseas in Portugal has also helped in the transition for Kone.
“Throughout this season we’ve been speaking to each other,” Kone said of his relationship with Nwaukoni. “He talks about the pros because he knew after the season was over I was going to be in that next group taking that first step. He was just keeping my hopes high, letting me know what to do on the court, make sure I keep my head in the books and keep myself focused so I could do better.”
Kone and Nesmith’s transition to professional basketball should be just the start of a string of Hofstra players moving on to professional leagues in future years. Thanks to impressive recruiting efforts by Mihalich and his staff, the Pride should remain contenders in the CAA for years to come.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.