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Mihalich’s first year at Hofstra is over but will have plenty of value

March 9, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

BALTIMORE – Little was expected of Hofstra this season. The reasons for it are clear and have been talked about, and they can be rehashed more at a later time. Joe Mihalich and any underclassmen had every reason to just look ahead to next year, when some of this season’s issues go away instantly, but there was none of that. Now it’s on to getting ready for next year, but the season that ended with Saturday’s 87-76 loss to Delaware in the CAA Tournament is a necessary part of the process, difficult though it may have been.

The easy thing is to look at the Pride’s final record of 10-23 and dismiss it as the kind of year that could be expected. Perhaps along the way, they competed, they pushed better teams to the limit like they did on Saturday, but just couldn’t quite break through. While that happened, that’s only the bottom line and not the whole story for this team.

“I’d like to think we pushed them and challenged them, and they had to respond, and they did,” Mihalich said on Saturday.

This was a transition year for the program. It was the first year of a new staff, which by itself makes the season just that. But the Pride also have personnel transition as well, and next year they will look a lot different. They will add Eliel Gonzalez, who was deemed a partial qualifier by the NCAA, as well as juniors Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, who followed Mihalich from Niagara and had to sit out this year. They also add Brian Bernardi, a shooter who transferred from SMU. That will boost the talent and depth greatly, especially now that some newcomers this season have a year of college under their belts.

Even as that would seem to portend better results, Mihalich hopes people don’t lose sight of this year, including the players who won’t be around past this season like graduate student Zeke Upshaw and Stephen Nwaukoni, the latter of whom closed out his college career with a stellar 13-point, 15-rebound effort on Saturday. Upshaw was second in the conference in scoring and earned all-conference honors.

“What I wanted from this year, when we’re eventually cutting nets down and winning championships, is to look back at this team and say they were a big part of it,” said Mihalich. “I know I speak for everyone at Hofstra when I say that hopefully where we’re climbing up the ladder and we’re cutting down some nets, we can say, don’t forget 2013-14. We didn’t have a lot to show for it in the win column, but don’t forget Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith, don’t forget Stephen Nwaukoni, because they played a big part in what turned out to be a lot of success at Hofstra. It’s why you coach.”

In the first year, a staff tries to establish how the program will be run and how they will play. Depending on the situation – it’s different if the coaching change is the result of a coach leaving for a perceived better opportunity than a coach being fired – the bottom line may lead some to view it as a throwaway year. But in many respects, it sets the stage, and Mihalich has done that as well as he can. The wins haven’t been there this year, but all the intangible aspects have been.

While Upshaw won’t be around, he enjoyed his time in the program and at the school. He said he’s eager to watch this team next year, fully understanding that while playing for just this year might not have seemed ideal, it’s all part of something bigger. He gets that this is bigger than just himself.

Hofstra has younger players who will play key roles beyond this season. Jordan Allen is at least a capable reserve going forward. Moussa Kone will get minutes in the post and be counted on to produce. Jamall Robinson was one of the conference’s top freshmen and gave it all he could on Saturday as he’s battled a high ankle sprain. Mihalich said Robinson was in tears as he came out of the game, and it wasn’t just the pain he was in – it was also because he wanted to go more. Robinson played at powerhouse Paul VI High School in Virginia, so he has a winning background as a player.

“You talk about a winner, look up ‘winner’ in the dictionary and you’ll probably see a picture of Jamall Robinson,” said Mihalich. “He shouldn’t have played, his coach shouldn’t have let him play. He could barely walk. But he wasn’t going to let me not let him play. He just did everything he could out there.”

You never sensed that the staff was looking ahead to next year. They went about this year trying to win games like any other year, but with a team that had less margin for error than next year’s will have. They also knew this was all part of a process that is bigger than this year, which would be the case even if they inherited a group that had the talent and experience to win it all. This year may not be much to write home about now, but will be a contributor to the better days ahead.

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