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Hofstra men's basketball is a work in progress

Hofstra University men's basketball head coach Joe Mihalich

Hofstra University men's basketball head coach Joe Mihalich speaks during the program's annual media day at Mack Sports Complex. (Oct. 17, 2013) Credit: James Escher

The first order of business for new Hofstra men's basketball coach Joe Mihalich was to say thank you, not only for the chance to rebuild the Pride's program but to the four players who chose to stay and help him lay the foundation.

Forwards Jordan Allen, Moussa Kone, Stephen Nwaukoni and Darren Payen had the option to transfer when Mihalich replaced Mo Cassara after a 7-25 season marred by the dismissal of four key players who admitted to stealing electronic equipment from fellow students.

"You can't say enough about the four returning guys," said Mihalich, who arrived in mid-April after a successful 15-year career at Niagara. "They were like bedrock. Those four guys are terrific. They bought in, and they want to win. Forever, I'll be indebted to those guys for holding down the fort.

"It's a process to get this place where we want it to be, and that takes time. Let's get good people. It started with those four guys."

You can't blame Mihalich if he invokes the phrase "work in progress" often this season. After a late entry into the recruiting process, he did well to land freshman guards Eliel Gonzalez, Chris Jenkins and Jamall Robinson along with transfers Dion Nesmith of Monmouth and Zeke Upshaw of Illinois State, both of whom are graduate students.

That gives Mihalich nine eligible scholarship players. But Hofstra attracted three other transfers. Guards Juan'ya Green, who averaged 17.1 points in two years at Niagara and was first-team all-MAAC last season, and Ameen Tanksley, who was the Purple Eagles' second-leading scorer at 11.3 points per game, followed Mihalich and must sit out this season. Sophomore guard Brian Bernardi also transferred from SMU.

"We have three terrific guards, but they're going to redshirt this year," Mihalich said of that trio. "It's going to be an interesting year because it's such a work in progress. It changes every day. We're still trying to figure out who we are."

Most likely, Mihalich will lean on the experience up front of Kone and Allen, and Gonzalez is a lock to start at point guard. Experience also gives the edge to Nesmith at shooting guard and Upshaw at small forward. But Nwaukoni has come back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him near the end of last season, and freshman Jenkins has displayed a nice shot.

Although Green and Tanksley aren't eligible, their presence in practice is vital. As Allen said, "Ameen and Juan'ya play a huge role in what we can potentially do as far as telling us what Coach expects. When Coach is yelling and trying to teach something, their role is to tell us, 'This is what Coach is talking about.'

"Some nights, we might not be as talented as the other team, but he's going to expect us to battle every game. That's all you can ask as a coach is not to roll over, not to be the nail that's getting hit by the hammer."

Mihalich promises an uptempo style of play. "I hope it helps in recruiting," he said. "It's the most fun way to play, the most fun to watch and definitely the most fun to coach. I've never had a kid say, 'I don't like to play that way. I want to walk it up and call 13 plays.' ''

That sense of humor must carry Mihalich through what could be a trying season that includes a game at Louisville against the defending national champions and a tough Colonial Athletic Association schedule against the likes of Drexel, Towson and highly respected newcomer College of Charleston.

"If in four, five, six years, we can look back and say all this success started in 2013-14," Mihalich said, "that's one way to look at it."

As tough as this season might be, the future, as Mihalich sees it, is full of promise. "Everything is in place to do something special," he said. "It's a conference that has produced a couple Final Four teams. That's the dream right there."

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