BOSTON – Hofstra has become quite adept at making lemonade out of lemons. There’s a simple reason why: for most of the past nine and a half months, they’ve been handed lemons quite often, including en route to their 4-0 start in Colonial Athletic Association play.
The Cliff Notes version is that Tom Pecora left to take the head coaching job at Fordham in late March, ultimately succeeded by former Providence head coach Tim Welsh. In early May, Welsh resigned and Mo Cassara, who joined the staff after former boss Al Skinner was fired from Boston College, took over. Along the way, a starter and key reserve from last season’s team transferred as well.
On Friday, the Pride headed to Boston for Saturday’s noon matchup with Northeastern. A snowstorm nailed the New York area and much of western Connecticut, leading to many disabled cars on the highway and a very slow going on what Cassara called “one of the worst road trips I’ve ever been on in my entire life.” The route was not what they normally do, and it took them through the hardest-hit parts of Connecticut. All told, they spent more than 11 hours on the trip, getting into the Boston area after 1 in the morning. One assistant coach said a couple of players were dragging not long after they got up for breakfast and then to get on the bus to Matthews Arena, so it wasn’t meaningless even though it could be overcome.
“This was easy compared to all the adversity we’ve seen all year, with coaching changes, players transferring,” said junior guard Mike Moore. “We’re just feeding off the energy. The adversity drives us to play harder.”
It apparently drove the Pride on Saturday in their 76-67 win over Northeastern. Hofstra played an excellent game at both ends of the floor, sharing the ball well to the tune of 20 assists on 25 made field goals and 53.2 percent shooting from the field, including 8-14 from long range. All five starters scored in double figures, with improving sophomore David Imes posting a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. They closed the game out by turning up the defense in the second half and going 18-20 from the foul line, including 14-16 in the second half.
At the center of it all is the CAA’s top player, Charles Jenkins. The box score shows that Jenkins had 20 points on 6-10 shooting, including 3-5 from long range, and handed out seven assists with just one turnover. A look at the season stat line shows a 23.8 points per game average on a ridiculous 58.9 percent from the field (50.8 percent from long range) to go with 4.6 assists and a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio and two steals per game. But while it’s a cliché, numbers don’t even almost begin to demonstrate his value to the team.
Cassara has had to get on him about hunting his shot, including on Saturday as he didn’t look to score initially. The results are hard to argue.
“He’s getting sick of me telling him to shoot the ball, but that’s what makes Charles who he is,” said the first-year head coach. “He’s willing to wait for his shots, wait for turn, and get everybody else involved. Today, that actually helped us.”
The balanced scoring seen on Saturday has been a regular occurrence in early CAA games, as five players average at least nine points per game. Jenkins is leading the way, not just in scoring but in getting players to fit in the framework of the team. With that, a nice support cast is developing alongside him, which was another question heading into this season.
With all of the adversity this team went through in the off-season, Jenkins knew he had to do even more as a leader than he had to in the first place. He reaches out to Cassara at times off the court, and the two bonded quickly after he took over. He said the relationship they have is more than just that of a player and coach, even though it would be easy to keep it at a distance.
“It’s crazy sometimes, as a player you deal with the coach so much, you almost don’t want to hear from him,” said the senior guard.
Jenkins has embraced being the face of the program. Last season, he did a regular video blog for the team’s Web site, in addition to being the unquestioned team leader and a constant in post-game press conferences once again. He remembers his true freshman year, when he redshirted and “nobody knew who I was.” As a true freshman, the Pride went 12-18 and thus weren’t noticed much outside of the New York metropolitan area. It’s been a steady climb since then, both individually and with the team. Northeastern head coach Bill Coen noted how Jenkins developed gradually every year, from being a slasher to a complete scorer and shooter over time. The work he put in is paying off, but that’s only part of it.
“As the captain, the face of this program, I have to bring guys together,” Jenkins said. “Playing the game is the easy part.”
Jenkins was quite loose after the game, which isn’t surprising considering his team won. But that wasn’t the only reason. This is a very together group, one that has come about from all that they have had to go through since the end of last season. One assistant coach said that while it was a long bus ride up, it was great bonding time for the team.
The trip to Boston was a microcosm of the last nine and a half months, and as they have been doing, they once again made lemonade out of the lemons they were handed. Right now it puts them atop the CAA as the last undefeated team.