With senior stars Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley leading the way, it’s no surprise preseason Colonial Athletic Association favorite Hofstra (16-6, 8-2 CAA) is playing for sole possession of first place against North Carolina-Wilmington (16-5, 8-2) Thursday night at the Mack Sports Complex. But the emergence of 6-9 sophomore center Rokas Gustys as the best big man in the conference means the Pride has the weapons to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
As a freshman, Gustys showed promise but was limited much of the season by a groin injury. But this season, he’s averaging 13.0 points and 11.1 rebounds, which ranks ninth nationally, and he has a streak of eight straight double-double performances in which he’s averaged 18.8 points and 14.3 rebounds. That stretch includes back-to-back 20-20 games, a feat no Division I player had accomplished since 2010.
“We really want it bad this year,” Gustys said of the CAA title. “If we don’t get it this year, everybody is going to be disappointed because we’ve put a lot of effort and energy into trying to win. If I need to get 20 rebounds to make the team win, I’m going to do it, and if I need to score 25 points, I’ll try to do my best.”
It was a recruiting coup last season when coach Joe Mihalich landed the big man from Lithuania as a three-star recruit out of Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy. Gustys competed against top NBA draft picks Jahlil Okafor and DeAngelo Russell and current LSU freshman star Ben Simmons when Oak Hill finished second nationally in 2014.
Courted by Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Georgia, Auburn and several other power conference schools, Gustys liked the situation at Hofstra. “I saw myself being at Hofstra with coach Mihalich,” Gustys said. “I felt it was a great fit, and they had players like Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley. I saw good things in the future. They were going to be special. It was great players to be around for a couple of years.”
CAA preseason player of the year Green is averaging 17.7 points and ranks ninth nationally with 6.8 assists per game. Mihalich likened the recent chemistry between his point guard and big man to that of Utah Jazz Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone. “Don’t forget Juan’ya Green’s role in this,” Mihalich said. “I don’t know if it’s ‘Stockton-to-Malone,’ but you start thinking about that. It’s a special relationship with the point guard and the big guy and how well they play together.”