For Elijah Pemberton, July 18, 2014, was a significant day.
Pemberton’s New York Lightning AAU basketball team was in Georgia for the Peach Jam, Nike’s prestigious tournament. That morning he learned he would be assigned to guard Malik Monk.
Monk had not yet committed to Kentucky, but he already was touted as a potent scorer and a member of the Class of 2016’s elite. Pemberton had not yet blossomed into the well-rounded star he has become for Hofstra. This, he thought, was his chance to prove what he could do.
“I played really good against him,” said Pemberton, who scored 14 points and helped limit Monk to eight points and 3- for-11 shooting. “He struggled a little from the field, but his next game he scored like 43 against somebody.”
In fact, it was 40. Close enough.
Monk was such an icon that Pemberton almost perfectly recalled details from that day more than two years ago.
As for Monk’s memory, “I remember playing them, but I don’t remember which one he is.”
That, in a nutshell, says all you need to know about Hofstra and No. 6 Kentucky before the programs’ first meeting at 3 p.m. Sunday at Barclays Center. The game, which ESPN will televise, originally was supposed to be the first sporting event at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, but plans changed in May because of delays in the arena’s progress.
Kentucky coach John Calipari draws from an elite pool — DraftExpress.com projects Monk (5) and fellow freshmen De’Aaron Fox (10) and Bam Adebayo (15) as Top 15 picks in June’s NBA Draft. Opponents relish the opportunity to play the Wildcats (8-1) and remember the experience for a long time.
Hofstra (6-4) is no slouch of a program. Rokas Gustys leads the country with an average of 13.8 rebounds per game and Pemberton has a realistic chance to win the Colonial Athletic Association’s Rookie of the Year award.
But it’s not the same.
“My joke is [Calipari] gets McDonald’s All-Americans and we get kids that eat at McDonald’s,” Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said.
That’s not to say the Pride will be in awe and incapable of competing. If anything, Pemberton’s Peach Jam experience is proof that in a given game, someone from Hofstra can outplay someone from Kentucky.
“I know our kids are tough,” Mihalich said. “I know they’re fearless. I know they want to play this game and they want to play against the best . . . How it plays out is how it plays out, but I know our kids will play their hearts out.”
Regardless of the result, the Pride will have a story to tell.
“It’s an incredible thing,” Mihalich said. “When you talk about college basketball — the storied programs in college basketball — you’re going to talk about North Carolina. You’re going to talk about UCLA. But you’re going to talk about Kentucky and Kansas. Our kids 20 years from now, 25 years from now, they’ll be telling their kids and their grandchildren that they played Kentucky in the Barclays Center.”
Said Monk, “We don’t get too big-headed or anything [when we hear that]. We just go in every day to get better.”
To them, it’s like any other game.
THE COLISEUM INAUGURAL GAME THAT WASN’T
When Hofstra takes on Kentucky on Sunday, it won’t be at Nassau Coliseum, as organizers had hoped one year ago, but at Barclays Center. But though the event – which was moved to Brooklyn in May – would have ideally opened up the renovated Coliseum, a spokeswoman for the arena said it still is on target for an April opening and will be hitting major milestones soon.
Seat installation will begin in a couple of weeks, the spokeswoman said, and the exterior is quickly taking shape.
The Coliseum’s Twitter account shows a drop-ceiling grid installation in the event lobby level, and on Nov. 27, preparations were being made to lay tile in the VIP lounge. A superstructure for a new elevator and a drop- ceiling grid on the concourse also were in the works.
The 20-month, $261-million renovation of the recently renamed venue (it’s officially Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum presented by New York Community Bank) will culminate on April 5 with a Billy Joel concert.