Andrew Albert (@AndrewJAlbert01)
Flash back one year. The Hofstra basketball program was in a dark place. Six players were suspended from the team, with four of them arrested and charged with burglary. The squad that took the court consisted of just four scholarship players.
It is one thing to struggle on the court. To struggle off the court is an entirely different set of problems.
When the 2012-2013 basketball season for Hofstra ended at a dismal 7-25 including 4-14 in the Colonial Athletic Association, it was time for a change. The Long Island university relieved head coach Mo Cassara of his head coaching duties. Less than three weeks later, the Pride decided to bring in Niagara coach Joe Mihalich to bring Hofstra out of the darkness, but he had little to work with.
The rebuilding process, while it is a long one, has clearly started. The Pride already have eight wins on the season, which tops the total from last season with four games remaining. Mihalich has everything to do with where Hofstra stands now, and where they are headed.
He has brought in quality players via transfer that have made an immediate impact. Dion Nesmith and Zeke Upshaw transferred to Hempstead from Monmouth and Illinois State, respectively. They are now the two leading scorers for the Pride, with Upshaw leading the team at 18.7 points per game and Nesmith right behind him with 12.8 points per game.
Upshaw, who makes Hofstra tick, only averaged 1.6 points per game in his three years at Illinois State. While they are excelling, the rest of the team is yet to catch up, but Mihalich believes they will.
“We are waiting through this year and taking our lumps here and there but I think we are getting better all the time,” Mihalich said after Hofstra’s loss to Drexel Sunday night. “I think we have a chance every game. We can’t wait to play Wednesday.”
“How crazy am I? we are playing a team that hasn’t lost yet and we can’t wait to play. It’s coming. Maybe a little slower than some people would like, but we knew this year would be tough.”
Mihalich’s rebuilding process starts with the players that he has on the bench this year. There are currently four players sitting out for the Pride due to redshirts and transfer rules. Two of those kids, Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, are from Philadelphia. Green went to Archbishop Carroll and Tanksley went to Imhotep.
Both of them transferred from Niagara when Mihalich made the move. Both men started every game for the Purple Eagles with Green averaging 17 points per contest, and Tanksley adding 12.8 per game last season. The duo, who have both been with Mihalich for three years, are already shaping the program in a positive way.
“It’s frustrating because our second team wins every day at practice,” Mihalich said. “That’s a little bit frustrating. They have been terrific, those guys. They work extremely hard every day. They make us better. They are getting better and they make for a good atmosphere.”
The 57-year-old coach can relate to both Green and Tanksley, as he spent a lot of time in Philadelphia himself. He played for La Salle from 1974-1978, and was an assistant coach for the Explorers from 1981-1998. Sunday night was his return to the City of Brotherly Love.
“It’s always good to come back here,” Mihalich added. “The only thing bad is that I have so much family and they have to watch us lose so I feel bad for them.”
Some of Mihalich’s family has followed in his prolific coaching footsteps. He has three sons, all of whom are into coaching. He says that he talks with them all a lot about coaching, even though not all of them coach basketball.
“One of them [Joe Mihalich, Jr.] is a Division III assistant coach at the University of Scranton,” Mihalich said. ”They just clinched the number one seed in their conference and could get an at-large big to the NCAA tournament. I am awful proud of him. I have twins, one is a track coach at George Mason and his twin brother coaches at Bishop O’Connell high school in Washington D.C.
He mentioned that his sons are doing something that he is not doing enough of these days.
“They’re all winning,” Mihalich joked.
Even though his team is not winning this year, he is happy with his role at Hofstra. He believes the future is bright, and Long Island is a place he would like to stay for some time.
“It is a great place,” Mihalich said. “Like I say all the time, even with the frustration, I am living the dream. It is a fantastic place. The people there, the leadership we have with our president and athletic director, it is a fabulous place. There is great potential.”