Sunday, November 6, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again - The 2011-12 Hofstra Men's Basketball Preview

Last week was the Hofstra Season Ticket Holder Scrimmage and Reception.  As I entered the Mack Center, my son Matthew and I headed to an open seat.  There I saw my old friend, Mr. Defiantly Dutch himself, Jerry Beach.   Jerry was already there watching the scrimmage with his much better half Michelle.  As I walked up to the Dutchman, I started singing "I'm back in the saddle again".  Yes, I am old school and thanks to my country music loving parents, I got to know the classic Gene Autry ditty.   Thus in my sixth year of writing this blog, it's the perfect theme for today's post.

So when Hofstra hosted Division II Queens College yesterday in an exhibition game, even though it didn't officially start the college basketball season, it was the start of the season to me.  And the best way to give a preview of the Pride for the 2011-12 season was to base it around the game vs. the Knights.

A season ago, Hofstra was centered around Charles Jenkins, their three time Haggerty Award and two time CAA Player of the Year guard.   Jenkins led the Pride to a 14-4 conference record and a 21-11 overall record.  Based on statistical analysis, Jenkins was probably the most important player to his team in the country.  Due to the NBA lockout, Jenkins was on hand to watch Hofstra's exhibition game and spent a good part being interviewed by the WRHU radio announce team.

As you would expect for an exhibition game, the stands were lightly filled, despite free admission.  Only a few rows of students filled the Lions Den behind the east basket.   Hofstra had their cheerleaders, dance team and the pep band there as well.  The dance team was in fine mid-season form.  The pep band was also in midseason form.  Unfortunately that meant, as usual, they didn't sound good at all.

As for Hofstra's starting lineup, seniors Mike Moore and Nathaniel Lester, along with junior transfer Steve Mejia, comprised the backcourt.  Junior David Imes and freshman Moussa Kone started in the frontcourt.  

Moore was the second leading scorer on the Pride, averaging nearly fifteen points per game and is one of the top free throw shooters in the CAA.  He is no longer the wingman for Jenkins, but now one of the tri-captains of the team and the main scoring threat in his senior season.  Coach Mo Cassara is counting on Moore to fill the leadership void and also partly makeup for the scoring lost by Jenkins' graduation.

Lester is a redshirt senior, returning from a quad injury that sidelined him for the entire 2010-11 season.  In the 2009-2010 season, he played the sixth man under former coach Tom Pecora, averaging eight points per game. Lester is also another one of the tri-captains for Cassara and he is being counted on to average double digits in scoring.

Mejia is the transfer point guard from Rhode Island who sat out last season.  In his sophomore season with the Rams, he averaged 18 minutes, 3.5 assists and only 1.2 turnovers per game.  He now has a chance to play thirty plus minutes with the Pride and Cassara is counting on additional scoring from Mejia as well..

Imes, the most improved player from last season, is looking to improve again this season.  He averaged 7.6 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game.  Imes seem to struggle at times yesterday, but later in the game he found his rhythm as he scored two baskets in a row to keep the Pride up thirteen, 59-46.  Cassara will be counting on Imes to be a consistent inside scoring force.

Kone was a surprise starter for the Pride.  He is a 6 foot 7 freshman from the Bronx who has a nice lefthanded touch around the basket and has impressed during practices.  Kone is one of two new frontcourt players for the Pride, who need to sorely improve on their rebounding from a year ago.

The game started out very sluggish with Queens getting an early 5-0 lead.  The Knights actually still had a lead 14-13 with 10:40 left before the Pride took the lead for good.   It was two bench players who sparked the Pride over the final ten plus minutes of the first half.  Sophomore Shemiye McLendon, who often provided instant offense for the Pride off the bench last season, provided several points off the bench.  Also, JUCO transfer Bryant Crowder provided points as well as solid defensive work to propel Hofstra to a 33-22 lead.  In the second half, Crowder had a thunderous slam off an entry pass that gave the crowd their highlight of the game.

The halftime stats exemplified the Pride's probable strengths, weaknesses and improvements for the season.  Hofstra was 12 of 17 from two point range in the first half but 0 for 6 from beyond the arc.  Moore had 12 points in the first half, most coming from driving the lane.  The Pride held the Knights to 35.7 percent shooting in the first half.   Most of Queens' points came from Khalil McDonald, who scored nineteen points in the game.

The second half showed promise for Hofstra.  Kone and Crowder were able to get down the court pretty quickly.. It was alsio impressive to see the two big men play very fundamentally sound basketball on both ends of the court.   With sophomore Stephen Nwaukoni filling out the frontcourt rotation, the Pride actually have more depth up front than last season.  If this game was any indication, the rebounding looks to be much improved as Hofstra outrebounded Queens 40-26.

In the second half, Queens got no closer than ten points the rest of the way.  Hofstra was up by as many as nineteen, 67-48 before cruising to a 71-57 win over Queens.  Moore led all scorers with 20 points.  Lester added 13, Crowder 12 and Mejia 10.   The Pride shot 48 percent from the field and eight players played 13 or more minutes.  Senior Dwan McMillan, who impressed me during last week's scrimmage, sat due to an apparent injury.  Once he is healthy, he will fill out what seems to be a nine man rotation.

The game made it very apparent how Hofstra will have to play this season.  As shown by the scoring breakdown, it will be much more of a team effort to makeup for the loss of Jenkins on offense.  Against Queens, Hofstra made a concerted effort to drive the lane and work the ball inside.  Due to their height, Lester and Moore provide difficult defensive matchups for opponents. .It made sense, because based on a 3-15 performance from beyond the arc, the Pride may be lacking a consistent three point shooting threat.

On the defensive end, the Pride played with a lot of effort and Cassara was doing a lot of coaching with his players when they missed assignments or didn't have the correct positioning.   As noted earlier, Crowder and Kone seem to bring better athleticism and rebounding to Hofstra.  I was also impressed on how both of them played on the defensive end.  Also, having two 6 foot 5 guards in Moore and Lester will help in rebounding.

Finally, the key is Mejia.  Mejia had a very solid game with ten points and nine assists (though he had four turnovers).  He did a very good job driving the lane and finding the open man. Mejia also went to the free throw line nine times, though he needs to improve on his percentage, as he only he hit five of those attempts from the charity stripe.

Jenkins was obviously the main reason why Hofstra was so successful in conference.  But another important element was that Hofstra did an excellent job in ball possession and free throw shooting.  Hofstra led the CAA in assists to turnover ratio and free throw percentage and was third in turnover margin (VCU and George Mason were 1-2).  Hofstra needs to be as good in those categories again because the window of margin is now much less with Sir Charles gone.

The Pride get their first test against a very good LIU team this Friday, November 11.  The Blackbirds are the defending NEC champions who have six of their top eight players returning.   LIU's high scoring, uptempo game will be a serious challenge to Hofstra's defense.

Hofstra Pride - 21-11 last season, 14-4 CAA.  Lost in CAA Semifinals to ODU.  Lost at Evansville in first round of CBI.

Strengths - Veteran guard leadership in Moore, Lester and Mejia.

Improvements - More athletic big men.  Deeper nine man rotation (once McMillan is healthy).

Questions  - Scoring options to make up for the loss of Jenkins.  Consistent outside shooting threat.

Prediction  - Seventh in the CAA.

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