If Joe Mihalich's first season was dedicated to restoring order to Hofstra's basketball program, his second promised to deliver the goods when transfers Juan'ya Green, Ameen Tanksley and Brian Bernardi became eligible. The Pride's 13-4 start certainly suggested they were as good as anyone in the Colonial Athletic Association.
But five home conference losses and the defensive lapses that accompanied them leave the fifth-seeded Pride (19-12) as something of a wild card entering their quarterfinal game against James Madison (19-12) in the CAA Tournament Saturday afternoon at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. JMU was part of a four-way tie at the top of the standings, suggesting a wide-open tournament, but while Hofstra went 10-8 in conference play, the Pride was only 1-7 against those top four.
"I feel like we left a couple wins out there, but by the same token, we've got 19 wins," Mihalich said. "That's pretty darn good. You want to have 19 wins and not be satisfied. That's the mark of a good culture. Really, we're just two games out of first place, and you think doggone it, we could have done better."
No one was more surprised than Mihalich by his team's struggles at home, but five of those seven losses to the top four teams were by single digits. Puzzling over the reason for what separated the Pride from the top level, Mihalich said, "This team, sometimes I feel they're a little too nice. When we were growing up, if somebody beat you the first time, you couldn't wait to play them the next time."
Fumbling in his pocket, Mihalich pulled out his cellphone to show a text message he sent to his players with a picture of Michael Jordan and a quote from him: "My failure gave me strength. My pain was my motivation."
"We've had some failures," Mihalich acknowledged. "Is it going to give us strength? I don't know. But here's Michael Jordan. It did for him -- 'My pain was my motivation.' You really need the fire in the belly. At times, they've shown it. If you want to win a championship, you have to have that passion."
There's no mistaking Mihalich's passion for the job of rebuilding Hofstra's program after 15 seasons at Niagara. He had a couple of earlier opportunities to leave Niagara for jobs that offered more money in better conferences, but he chose to stay put for family reasons.
Mihalich, 58, said former Niagara coach Frank Layden, who later was a coach and general manager in the NBA, advised him. "He'd say, 'Money can't love you back. If you're happy, you're happy,' '' Mihalich said. "And we were happy."
When recruits asked Mihalich if he ever would leave Niagara, he told them it would have to be for something special. That opportunity finally came along in the spring of 2013 when Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway was searching for a replacement for Mo Cassara, who was fired after a 7-25 season in which six of his players were arrested.
Hathaway was searching for a coach who could stabilize the program, and Mihalich was a match. "I knew right away when I sat down with Jeff at the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta that I fit the profile he was looking for," Mihalich said. "I just knew it."
Green (17.0 points, 6.5 assists) and Tanksley (16.7 points, 5.6 rebounds) believed so much in Mihalich that they followed him from Niagara and have emerged as the Pride's leaders. Guards Bernardi (11.9 points) and Dion Nesmith (10.7 points) add to the offense, and starting center Moussa Kone and sixth man Malik Nichols provide rebounding and energy.
Green was named to the All-CAA first team and Tanksley was selected to the second team. Nesmith was named to the CAA All-Academic Team for the second straight season.
It's a talented group that could surprise in the CAA Tournament if the Pride can become a little tougher on defense. "We had this conversation with the team," Mihalich said. "If we all don't decide we want to be good defensively, we're going to be home from Baltimore a lot quicker than we want to be. It's something we have to recognize, but I really do think it's fixable.
"If I didn't think we could play defense, I wouldn't think we can win the championship. And I know we can win that championship because I know we can play better defense."