There are three weeks to go in the CAA’s regular season and everything has gone exactly as expected thus far. Which is to say, unpredictably. There are lower-echelon teams beating upper-echelon teams, the standings swing wildly every Thursday and Saturday and everyone envisions a scenario in which they can be the team cutting down the nets in Washington, D.C. in March.
And Hofstra, which was picked to win the league in October despite receiving fewer first-place votes than Charleston, sits atop the standings the day before Valentine’s Day even though the Pride ranks third among CAA teams in the NET rankings and second at barttorvik.com. Hofstra is the top-ranked CAA squad at KenPom.com even though it doesn’t lead the league in either conference-only offensive efficiency (second) or defensive efficiency (tied for second).
“It’s just fascinating how close everybody is,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said Wednesday afternoon. “Just trying to keep our head down and win one game at a time. Because we know if we do that, on Feb. 29 (the day the CAA season ends), somebody’s going to say ‘Here’s what place you’re in and who you’re playing’ and it’s going to be, no matter what, three tough games — and hopefully not four.”
But as the Pride (9-3) prepares for a clash for first place against Charleston tonight — the Cougars are a half-game back at 9-4 — it has ascended to the top in a fashion Mihalich probably didn’t anticipate in the fall.
While preseason all-CAA first-teamer Eli Pemberton has been solid as usual, Hofstra’s best player has turned out to be Desure Buie, who earned preseason all-CAA second team honors based mostly on his status as the league’s reigning defensive player of the year.
But Buie, the third or fourth scoring option last season, has continued to serve as the Pride’s facilitator and top defender while emerging as the leading scorer. Buie scored at least 20 points in a game just three times in his first four seasons with the program, a span of 107 games. (Buie received a redshirt after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Pride’s eighth game of the 2016-17 campaign) He has scored at least 20 points seven times this season and also has a 35-point and a 44-point game on his resume. Buie is on pace to become just the fifth Hofstra player in the last 25 years to lead the team in scoring, assists and steals.
The Pride has also displayed a comfort level with being uncomfortable — an admirable trait, albeit one Mihalich might prefer to swap out in real time for some comfortability with comfort.
Hofstra’s lost back-to-back games just once all season and bounced back from its three most discouraging losses — a season-opening defeat to San Jose State and lopsided routs at the hands of St. Bonaventure and William & Mary — with double-digit victories. The Pride has won nine road games, tied for the third-most in the country behind only Stephen F. Austin and Vermont.
The Pride has won four games in which it trailed by at least 12 points, the program’s most since the 2010-11 season. The first double-digit comeback came at UCLA on Nov. 21, when Hofstra upset the Bruins, 88-78.
On Saturday, Hofstra trailed by 16 points before the under-12 timeout in the first half before coming back to edge Northeastern, 75-71. The Pride also stumbled out of the gate at home in an 88-61 loss to William & Mary on Jan. 2 and trailed Delaware by double digits in the first half of a 73-71 loss on Jan. 23.
“It might speak to why we have slow starts at home — we don’t like it unless it’s difficult,” Mihalich said.
Chances are things will grow difficult at some point tonight. Six of the last seven games between Hofstra and Charleston have been decided by six points or fewer, including the first clash this season in South Carolina on Jan. 18, when the Cougars earned a 69-67 victory.
The stakes are also fraught with difficulty in another big CAA swing game. With a win, Hofstra will be 1 1/2 games up on Charleston. With a loss and a win by Delaware over Elon, the Pride will fall to third in the standings with an 0-3 record against the Cougars and Blue Hens.
Hours before tipoff, it’s already not easy — which might just be the way the Pride likes it.
“I think our guys are competitive — they like the challenge,” Mihalich said. “I always say give me a guy that, just when you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to say ‘Oh yes I can.’ I don’t know what makes us that way. I think it speaks to character, it speaks to maturity, it speaks to confidence. It speaks to resolve. Our guys have all those qualities.”