Sunday, February 15, 2015

Can Hofstra Get Back on the Track?

I lived on Long Island, New York for forty six years.  If you live or have lived on Long Island, you are no doubt familiar with the LIRR, the much aligned Long Island Railroad that takes thousands of passengers on a daily basis to and from New York City, Brooklyn, Queens and various stops, via various train branches on Long Island.  The last twenty years of my life I lived on the south shore of Long Island, first in Seaford and then in Bellmore when we bought our house.  Those are two stops on the Babylon Line.

I moved to Columbia, South Carolina in August of 2012.   The LIRR trains have been replaced by freight trains which seem to run as often as the LIRR, but probably more reliable and more on time. The one difference is that you don't want to be caught at a railroad crossing with a freight train coming through.  Some of them are really a "Long Train Running".

On Saturday, January 10, I drove to Elon, North Carolina to watch Hofstra take on Elon in a #CAAHoops contest, as us CAA bloggers affectionately term Colonial Athletic Association Conference games.   Elon is about a three hour trip from my home in Columbia, South Carolina.  My friend Tieff would join me, as he drove separately and we met up in a parking lot across from Alumni Gym,

It was our first time ever at Alumni Gym on what looks to be a very pretty campus. Elon's Alumni Gym was built in 1949, which from other than the old style ceiling with the metal lamps hanging from the ceiling, you could not tell it was built in 1949.  That's because the gym was recently renovated for stadium style seating and electronic scoreboard in each of the four corners of the gym.   It's more like an intimate arena, which seats 1,607 fans.   It's one of the nicest venues I have seen in my ten years of covering college basketball for this blog. Well done, Elon, well done.

Elon entered the contest at 2-1 conference play, which included an 85-79 home win over William and Mary Thursday night.    Hofstra entered the game at 3-0 in conference play, after their come from behind win over the College of Charleston on Thursday night, another game Tieff and I attended .   After an absolutely terrific version of the Star Spangled Banner by the all female Elon University a cappella group, Sweet Signatures, the start of the game saw Elon take an early 4-0 lead on baskets by Ryan Winters and Austin Hamilton.  The Pride would finally score their first basket a little more than three and half minutes into the game on a layup by Dion Nesmith.

The Phoenix would maintain the lead for the first nine plus minutes of the half as Tony Sabato led the way with a three point play and two assists.   Elon held Hofstra to five of twenty one shooting during that time span as the Pride simply couldn't get anything going on offense.

Finally Hofstra broke through on Elon and it was their dynamic Niagara duo of  Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, leading the way. Tanksley and Green buried several threes to help put Hofstra up ten, 25-15.

The Pride would add to their lead as the fouls mounted on the Phoenix, much to the chagrin of the Elon fans, who let the referees know their displeasure with the calls.   A Brian Bernardi three pointer extended the Hofstra lead to sixteen, 36-20.    The Pride would cap their first half with three more free throws to take a 39-25 lead at the halftime.

In the second half, Hofstra was still up fourteen, 51-37 with about thirteen minutes left.  But the Phoenix finally arose, starting a 9-2 spurt to cut the lead to seven, 53-46.   Alumni Gym suddenly got very loud as the Elon fans showed how well the intimate arena holds sound.

However, the Pride responded with an 11-0 run, which put Hofstra up 64-46 with 7:45 left in the game.  The run was highlighted by excellent ball movement by the Pride as they did a great job of rotating the ball around to find the open man.  From there, Elon could get no closer than fifteen the rest of the way.  Similar to the way they ended the College of Charleston game, the Pride were very solid from the line down the stretch, hitting seven of their eight free throws for the very impressive 79-61 road win over the Phoenix.   The Pride again showed their three point prowess as they went fourteen of thirty two from beyond the arc.

Hofstra had left North Carolina in first place in the CAA at 4-0 and 13-4 overall.  They were ranked high in KenPom, 72 after the win over Elon, a team that has only won one CAA conference game since.  Everything was going Hofstra's way, especially having won three of their four conference games on the road.  The Pride had a large contingent of fans at the game vs. the Phoenix.  I have no doubt that Hofstra's faithful happily drove home back to New York that night thinking that the Pride would end that fourteen year drought of not making the NCAA Tournament.  The Flying Dutchmen train was riding at full speed down the Colonial Athletic Conference tracks.

Then the train got briefly stopped at a northeast station.   Hofstra suffered a tough eight point loss, 81-73 at Northeastern. The game, which was a battle for first place at the time, was tied at the half and Hofstra was up 69-68 with nine minutes left before the Huskies went on an 11-0 run to win the game. No shame in losing to one of the preseason favorites in the CAA.

Then the Hofstra train came back to Hempstead for the game at home vs. UNC Wilmington, a team they had beat only a few weeks prior.  A little repair work at the Mack Center and the Flying Dutchmen train would be back on a roll.

And for a while, it sure seemed that way.  The Pride were up five at the half, 38-33 and led by six, 69-63 with 5:42 left in the game.   The Seahawks then went on an 11-1 run over the span of four minutes and forty seconds.  The Hofstra D became non-existent, while their offense, which consisted mainly of three point shooting, went ice cold.    The Pride still had a chance to tie late, but Green missed a crucial free throw that would have tied the game at 75 with thirty four seconds left.  Forced to foul, the Pride would go on to lose the game 79-74.

Head Hofstra Train Engineer Joe Mihalich made some adjustments for the next home game vs. Drexel and the Pride responded with possibly their most balanced offensive game of the season, an 86-58 pasting of the Dragons. The Pride made a more conscientious effort to work the ball to their bigs, which resulted in Hofstra shooting twenty six of forty four from two point range.  Combine that with fifteen steals and thus a twenty eight point win.

With the train seemingly back on track, Hofstra had another home game vs. James Madison.  For the first twenty minutes, the Pride offensive locomotive was chugging away at full speed.  The Pride had a 45-33 lead at the half and still led by twelve, 52-40 with 16:30 left in the game.

Then the Dukes made a run, while the Pride, content to chuck shots from beyond the arc, went frigid.   The result was a 14-0 JMU run over nearly five minutes that put them up 54-52.   Moussa Kone would get the Pride back up later 61-59 with four and a half minutes left.  He would also score their final basket to tie the game at 63.  But JMU would score the last six points of the game while Hofstra continued to clank shots from the outside, missing their last six shots, all three point attempts.  The Dukes would win 69-63.

From there, the train would completely derail.  Hofstra would get hammered in Williamsburg by the first place Tribe of William and Mary, 100-79.  From there, the train limped back home to Hempstead.  Perhaps, the Pride locomotive should have stayed in the shop instead of playing the Towson Tigers.   Up one, 38-37 at the break, Hofstra wilted under the dominance of Towson's frontcourt.  The Tigers scored fifty second half points, shot fifty eight percent from the field, including sixty two percent from two point range and outrebounded Hofstra 41-23.   The result was another home loss 86-72.

After a 4-0 start, the Pride had lost five of their last six games to become .500 in conference.  What had been a great beginning to their conference season had now seemingly gone up in flames.  From 13-4 to 14-9 just like that.  The question was, could Hofstra show the mark of a good team and respond to adversity.

Hofstra did rebound to win their next two games, a ten point road win at Delaware and an eleven point win at home over Elon.   Then they had a golden opportunity, a win at home on national TV (NBC Sports Network) vs. Northeastern and they would be in a tied for third with the Huskies and the Dukes of James Madison.

But despite shooting fifty percent from the field, hitting the same number of two point and three point field goals as the Huskies, the Pride lost 79-68.   Despite FIFTEEN steals, Hofstra couldn't stop Northeastern late on Huskies' possessions.  They also got killed again on the boards 33-17, allowing eleven offensive rebounds and numerous second chances for the Huskies.

So after thirteen games, the Hofstra train is stalled at the Hempstead station at 7-6 in conference, sixth in the CAA and 16-10 overall.  Their KenPom ranking had dropped to nearly double of what it was after the Elon game, 142.

So what happened?  Why is such an offensive juggernaut, the Pride, first in CAA scoring, second in three point FG percentage, first in assists per game and first in turnover margin, which includes first in the CAA in steals per game, struggled so much over the past nine games?

When you look under the hood, it's three things.

One, it is clearly the defense, especially the interior defense.   You didn't really see these issues during the non conference season and that was partly due to the non conference schedule the Pride played.   Only North Carolina State (55) and LaSalle (81) have rankings in the Kenpom top 100 in Hofstra's non conference opponents (William and Mary is the only conference opponent in the top 100 in Ken Pom at currently #89).  The Wolfpack defeated the Pride by twelve, 76-64, while the Explorers defeated the Pride 83-74.  Their other two non conference losses came at USF 71-70 after blowing a late second half double digit lead and an 82-77 loss at Columbia where the Lions hit thirteen three pointers.

So I have looked at their ten losses and for the most part, there is a common thread.  In seven of the ten losses, Hofstra has been outscored in points in the paint, often by large margins.  Only in two of the losses, Columbia and Towson, did Hofstra outscore its opponent in the paint, while in Thursday's game, both Hofstra and Northeastern scored forty four points in the paint.

Points in the Paint in Losses

Hofstra PIP Opponent PIP
Pride 18 NC State 30
Pride 16 USF 36
Pride 20 Columbia 18
Pride 28 LaSalle 44
Pride 36 Northeastern 44
Pride 18 UNCW 40
Pride 34 William and Mary 48
Pride 20 James Madison 24
Pride 32 Towson 30
Pride 44 Northeastern 44

Five times Hofstra has been outscored in the paint by ten or more points.  Five times, Hofstra has allowed forty or more points in the paint.  Only once did Hofstra score more than forty points in the paint in their losses (last game vs. Northeastern).

Two, over reliance on the three point shot.   Hofstra is second in the CAA in three point shooting at 37 percent.  But when the Pride goes cold from beyond the arc, their offense struggles.  In their ten losses, outside of the one point loss to USG and their first game against Northeastern, the Pride have not shot their season average from beyond the arc, often times not even close. Often it's very cold second halves that do Hofstra in. Against James Madison, they shot 2 of 15 in the second half from three point range. Against Towson, they shot 1 of 11 in the second half from beyond the arc.

Three Point Shooting Percentage in Losses

Opponent Three Pt %
NC State 32% (9 of 28)
USF 42% (11 of 26)
Columbia 33% (8 of 24)
LaSalle 29% (6 of 21)
Northeastern 39% (10 of 26)
UNCW 29% (6 of 21)
James Madison 35% (11 of 31)
William and Mary 31% (9 of 29)
Towson 23% (6 of 26)
Northeastern 33% (4 of 12)

In only one game did they shoot less than twenty 3-point attempts.  In seven games they attempted twenty four or more three pointers,  Hofstra has BY FAR attempted the most three pointers in the CAA, with six hundred and thirty one, ninety six more than the next closest, William and Mary with five hundred and thirty five (Hofstra has played one less game in conference).   Hofstra averages twenty four 3-point attempts per game.   It's the old adage, you live by the three, you die by the three.

Three, Size Matchups

The Pride, having so many talented guards, will often play a four guard set of Green, Dion Nesmith or Jamall Robinson, Brian Bernardi and Ameen Tanksley. Tanksley will play the four and one of their forwards, Rokas Gustys, Moussa Kone or Malik Nichols playing the five.  Now while that creates matchup problems for opponents when Hofstra spreads the floor, it also creates problems for the Pride when it comes to, as noted, interior defense but also rebounding.
Opponent Opponents Offensive Rebounds Rebounding Margin Opponents Second Chance Pts
NC State 16 -4 12
USF 6 +2 4
Columbia 13 -6 12
LaSalle 7 -1 12
Northeastern 4 -17 4
UNCW 12 -3 17
James Madison 11 -8 13
William and Mary 4 +7 2
Towson 12 -18 17
Northeastern 11 -16 9

In only three of the games, USF, the road game vs. Northeastern and William and Mary did Hofstra have more second chance points than their opponent. As noted, they had a double digit lead against the Bulls with four minutes left in the game before losing a game they never should have lost. In the road game vs. the Huskies, Northeastern didn't have many second chance points, since they shot nearly sixty four percent from the field. Likewise, William and Mary shot sixty five percent from the field against Hofstra.

There is hope.  Hofstra scored forty four points in the paint in their loss to Northeastern, which was the third most on the season (Hofstra scored forty six points in the paint vs. Jacksonville and fifty points against Drexel).  The Pride made a concerted effort to work the ball inside to Gustys, Kone and Nichols.  Gustys had his best all around game as a member of Hofstra with thirteen points, five rebounds, four steals and two blocks in twenty four minutes of action.  Nichols added twelve points and Kone chipped in with seven points.   They combined to score thirty two points, fourteen more than their season average.

Watching the Northeastern game on television, Hofstra at times played very good defense.  They had fifteen steals and were often very active and aggressive against the Huskies.   But as the announcers noted, they would let up towards the end of the possession, not communicate well at times on defense, as defenders failed to step out on ball screens and they didn't play help defense when Scott Eatherton got the ball in the post.  Eatherton was eight of ten from the field.  If they play Northeastern again in the CAA tourney, Hofstra needs to double down on Eatherton when he gets it in the post.

Brian Bernardi is a terrific shooter, but if he is not hitting the three pointer, the Pride are much better off defensively with a rotation of Green, Nesmith at the three, Nichols at the four and Kone or Gustys at the five.  This is due to Nichols being much quicker than Bernardi on defense and having more length than Tanksley at the four.  Nichols was much more of a matchup problem for six foot six Northeastern guard David Walker than Bernardi.  Walker had a field day when Bernardi was guarding him.

The Pride have enough offensive firepower to offset Bernardi being on the bench more.  Plus they showed that Gustys is capable of giving them double digit scoring against a good front line like Northeastern's, which, to be honest, is rare in the CAA.   It gives them better balance and better defense. Keep feeding the paint, Hofstra.

The good thing about the CAA is now there are only ten teams, which means six teams now get a bye in the first round as opposed to a few years ago, when only four teams got a bye.   Hofstra is right now in the sixth spot and can right itself for the CAA tournament.  They will likely have to face both William and Mary and Northeastern in the the tourney to get to the NCAA Tournament anyway.  It's going to be defense that gets them there.

They can start that defensive trend against Drexel today.   Let's see if they can get the train rolling again.

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