Dealing with March Sadness: CAA Champ Hofstra Coping with Canceled NCAA Tourney

All season long, the Hofstra Pride successfully learned from the past and overcame adversity.

Learning how to correct mistakes along the path to ultimately reaching the pinnacle of its conference always provided another opportunity to grow as a team.

However, this time, Hofstra has sadly suffered a loss which it can frustratingly do nothing about.

Long before that, the Pride’s lessons started with a gut-wrenching loss as the top seed in last year’s Colonial Athletic Association finals to the second-seeded Northeastern Huskies, a defeat which drove Hofstra throughout this season.

Picked as the CAA preseason favorite, the Pride readily admitted that after a series of poor early-season run-throughs, it wasn’t ready to be thought of in that way.

That was even more evident after Hofstra’s first game.

“We wouldn’t have got picked first if they watched a lot of our practices,” head men’s basketball coach Joe Mihalich said after the Pride surprisingly lost its season-opener at home, as 18½-point favorites to San Jose State, a team that went on to finish 7-24 and in tenth place in the 11-team Mountain West Conference. 

Mihalich added at the time, “What did we have to be overconfident about? We didn’t beat anybody this year. People said we’re first [in the CAA]. Well, we’re not.

”It’s a long season… it’s a matter of looking in the mirror and deciding who we are, who we want to be.”

The next two games provided an inconsistent answer to that notion as Hofstra beat Monmouth by 20 points at home before losing at Bucknell by 15.

After an obligatory blowout over Division II New York Tech, the Pride traveled 9,068 miles on a six-game journey through California, Florida and New York. That trip began with a momentous victory as a 14-point underdog at UCLA (which finished second in the Pac-12 this year) that sent national shockwaves throughout college basketball, and continued with three more wins in four games, but ended with one of the low points of the Hofstra’s season in a humiliating 28-point loss at St. Bonaventure.

The Pride again regrouped, winning its next five games, including a 2-0 start on the road in conference play.

The next game, Hofstra could do little right at either end of the floor, losing by 27 points to William & Mary in the Pride’s CAA home opener on the 20th anniversary of the opening of Hofstra’s home arena, prompting Mihalich to say, “There’s two things you deal with in life, success and failure, and we failed like crazy tonight.”

It was just the opposite the next game, as the Pride pounded Elon at home by the same 27-point margin Hofstra suffered in its previous contest.

Later on, the optimism of a 5-1 start in CAA play (including paying back William & Mary in a 23-point road win) was quickly tempered with consecutive two-point losses — in which the Pride failed to execute during the final seconds of winnable games — at Charleston, and at home against Delaware.

However, Hofstra learned from that, too, taking control of the conference with an eight-game winning streak. That run came to an end in the Pride’s penultimate game of the regular season as Hofstra was physically bullied during an eight-point home loss to Towson.

Following that defeat, Mihalich said, “If we’re going to win a [CAA tournament] championship, tonight has to be one of the reasons why because it’s going to be about how we respond to this. They treated us like they were our big brothers.

“We’re not going to put this behind us… we have to keep this fresh in our minds. We can’t just burn the tape. We’re going to keep remembering this. If we respond the right way, this could be a reason that we get it together for Saturday and for Washington, D.C.”

Back then, Saturday was two days later, when the Pride rebounded with an easy home win on Senior Day against James Madison to mark the first time since joining the CAA in the 2001-02 season that Hofstra clinched consecutive, outright CAA regular-season titles. And, Washington, D.C. was the site of this year’s CAA tournament, to follow.

In the end, Mihalich’s team did exactly what he hoped.

Responding each time it needed to, the Pride recovered from a lackluster first half against eighth-seeded Drexel to win by 18 points, with solid second-half offense and smothering, lockdown defense throughout a CAA quarterfinal matchup.

In the CAA semifinals, Hofstra blew an early 10-point lead before building a 22-point advantage and holding off a late surge by fifth-seeded Delaware to win by 14.

In a CAA finals rematch against sixth-seeded Northeastern, the Pride got revenge for last year and achieved what it sought ever since it left the America East Conference 19 years earlier. In a hard-fought championship game featuring six ties and eight lead changes, Hofstra again found itself needing to answer a major challenge.

Once again, the Pride did.

Trailing, 48-44, with eight minutes left on Tuesday night, Hofstra went on a 20-6 run and ultimately beat Northeastern by nine points to give the Pride its first NCAA tournament berth as a CAA member, having last reached The Big Dance when the Hofstra Flying Dutchmen won consecutive America East tournament titles in 2000 and 2001.

Or, so it thought.

What happened after that was unthinkable.

Returning home to Long Island on Wednesday, the day after finally cutting the CAA nets night before, Hofstra was still overjoyed as news which eventually threatened the existence of this year’s NCAA tournament began to trickle in, piece by piece, under the weight of the deadly coronavirus sweeping across the globe, as the disease quickly made more of an impact within the United States.

Setting in motion a previously unimaginable sequence of events, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a worldwide pandemic. About four hours before the Hofstra team bus arrived back in New York, the CBI tournament was canceled. Less than 90 minutes later, the Golden State Warriors announced it would close its home games to fans. About a half-hour later, Ohio governor Mike DeWine confirmed NCAA tournament games in Ohio (with the First Four slated for Dayton) would be played without fans in attendance. The Ivy League then canceled all spring sporting events and just about the time Hofstra returned to its campus in Hempstead, NY, the NCAA announced plans to play its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments without fans (still providing some hope for Hofstra and 131 other men’s women’s teams). But then, the list went on. Major conferences (widely known as the Power 5s), including the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and Big East followed suit, In between, the NBA game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was postponed as Jazz star Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus. The NBA’s G League was suspended and then the same for NBA’s main league for a minimum of 30 days.

All of that and much more took place on Wednesday.

Mihalich said in a phone call on Friday, “The way it unraveled for us, was it was the highest of highs on Tuesday night, but then you get a little bit of an uh-oh when you hear that the [NCAA tournament] games will be with no fans, and then Gobert comes down with testing positive, and then [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver suspends the NBA season, and your stomach starts to get more and more queasy.”

On Thursday, that feeling got worse.

Tenth-ranked Duke said it wouldn’t participate in the NCAA tournament as the school indefinitely suspended all of its athletic activities. Top-ranked Kansas was still willing to play in the tournament, but its school indefinitely suspended all athletic travel. One by one, the Power 5 conferences swiftly went from previously making their announcements about excluding fans for their tournaments to canceling those events, including the Big East abruptly ending its tournament with St. John’s leading Creighton in a quarterfinal game at halftime.

Then came the most devastating news for Mihalich and his team.

The NCAA had canceled the tournament. Not even a postponement, but for the first time after 81 annual NCAA tournaments beginning in 1939, the coronavirus did something not even World War II was able to do by forcing an outright cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

Asked if he thought on Wednesday that the tournament would still be played without fans attending, Mihalich said, “Yeah, I did.”

Yet, when further news was reported the next day, Mihalich’s hope faded.

“When things like that happened (on Wednesday), it just kept getting worse and worse. And then, the Power 5s canceled their tournaments. At that point, you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re not playing this tournament next week,’ so you start to just hope that they would postpone it, which I wish they would’ve done, and I wish they would still do.”

Although he knows it’s extremely unlikely that the NCAA could change its decision and somehow hold the tournament in the coming weeks should the threat of the coronavirus greatly decrease over that time, Mihalich would, of course, love to see it.

“I haven’t heard that kind of talk, but that would be a dream come true,” he said.

As ESPN reported on Friday, postponing the NCAA tournament was great in theory but logistically impractical.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said, “The immediate logistical problems were that we had this rapidly, continuing right now, number of schools that were shutting down. We had the reality that if you start a tournament six weeks from now, a bunch of our students and our seniors will have moved on. And when you looked at the projections of where the virus was going to be in six weeks it looks worse, not better.”

As of Saturday afternoon, it seems that the NCAA does not have plans to hold its annual Selection Sunday show, revealing the bracket for the 68 teams that would have played in this year’s NCAA tournament, something which many in college basketball have called for since the tournament was canceled.

With a tournament postponement, Mihalich had an ideal scenario in mind and even offered a new slogan to advertise it.

He advised, “Have the selection show Sunday, show who’s in the tournament, put the matchups there, and just say, ‘Hey, this is on hold. It’s canceled for now, but if we can do it, we’re gonna do it in May and instead of having March Madness, we’ll have Mayhem.’”

With the tournament officially canceled, teams that would have participated in it (like Hofstra) might view the NCAA going through with Selection Sunday a simultaneously intriguing and torturous exercise.

But Mihalich is sure of where he stands on that.

“I’d like to see it,” he said, unwaveringly. “We can’t feel any worse than we feel. So, show that… to me, it’ll be another sign that we did it. We’re there.”

Many NCAA tournament projections over the past several weeks listed Hofstra as a No. 13 or No. 14 seed facing Villanova, as a possible No. 3 or No. 4 seed. Although the NCAA says its matchups are done strictly based on merit, Mihalich (as many others do) believe the NCAA looks for compelling storylines wherever possible. One of those would have been Hofstra facing Villanova head coach and two-time national champion Jay Wright, who cut his head coaching teeth during six years at Hofstra, where he led the Flying Dutchmen to its America East titles 19 and 20 years ago, respectively, while coaching ex-Hofstra star, eventual NBA first-round draft pick and current Pride assistant coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton in the first of those two America East championship years.

“We were definitely gonna play Villanova,” Mihalich half-joked. “If they release it Sunday night, it’ll say we were playing Villanova.”

The most important thing for Mihalich and the Pride is that they and everyone else involved among the other nine CAA teams appear to be physically well, despite a referee who worked one of the earlier-round games in this year’s CAA tournament later testing positive for the coronavirus (even though the high end of the advised 14-day cycle for monitoring coronavirus symptoms after possible exposure won’t be reached until next weekend).

“They’re fine,” Mihalich said of all players, coaches and other staff who participated in the CAA tournament. “[No one] has reported any signs of any symptoms of the coronavirus and they would’ve known by now. There’s no concern.”

Hofstra’s current mental and emotional states, however, are vastly different for now.

“Every coach, every player [on our team] is just absolutely heartbroken,” Mihalich said.

“We’re just going to have to deal with it. We got dealt a bad hand here. We earned our way into the tournament, we won the championship and yet, we still don’t get to go. It’s not fair, but that’s life.

“We’re gutted. We feel like somebody just ripped our hearts out. But as I tell the guys, life isn’t fair and this is a perfect example. So, we’re gonna hang our hat on the fact that the last time we played, we cut down the nets. That’s going to be the last feeling we had. Even though this got taken away from us, and we earned it — and it shouldn’t have been [taken away], and it did — we’ll just be happy with the championship that we won.”

Hofstra senior guard Eli Pemberton, a Second Team All-CAA selection this season and a member of the 2020 CAA All-Tournament Team, wrote in a tweet on Thursday, “Praying for everyone’s safety in the midst of these terrible times. But man, I am so hurt for my brothers and I. So hurt.”

Pemberton’s teammate, First Team All-CAA selection this year and the 2020 CAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, senior guard Desure Buie added in a tweet the same day, “I worked so hard to get here. That’s Wild smh I’m hurt hurt.”

In the meantime, the NCAA has already allowed seniors in spring sports to retain their eligibility next year. Whether that becomes a domino to lead to the same for winter sports remains to be seen, but it’s doubtful, considering players like Pemberton and Buie played almost the entire season, even if it was cut a little short.

On Friday, Buie tweeted a plea in that regard (which is unlikely to be answered), writing, “Came up with this solution give us seniors our year back and give me my automatic bid and we even.” Pemberton later replied to Buie’s tweet in the affirmative with 10 exclamation points.

In Hofstra’s case, the Pride could simply pick up where it left off, with two of its key starters, guards Jalen Ray and Tareq Coburn, being juniors this season.

But, Buie’s hypothetical scenario could be an issue for teams with, for example, non-starting juniors who are ready to take on bigger roles as seniors next season, but which would have to take back seats to returning seniors if the NCAA grants the same eligibility relief to winter sports seniors which have been given to spring sports seniors.

“I don’t even know how to think it through,” said Mihalich, who doesn’t envision the possibility to be a reality, partly because of the questions surrounding available scholarships in such a situation.

Right now, Mihalich is far more concerned with how to overcome the shock of the Pride achieving exactly what it set out to do this season without the expected reward of doing so to follow.

According to Mihalich, Hofstra will at some point bring this season’s team — which went 26-8 once a year after winning a school-record 27 games — back to campus to honor it with a proper celebration.

“We’ll definitely do that,” said Mihalich, who would have coached in his first NCAA tournament in 13 years, since taking Niagara there in 2005 and 2007 before later arriving at Hofstra seven years ago.

Mihalich also said that ending the program’s 19-year conference tournament title drought is very gratifying, despite the Pride — which ironically wore warmup shirts throughout the CAA tournament reading “OUR TIME,” even though it wouldn’t fully become Hofstra’s time — knowing it will finish its next regular season waiting 20 years since its last NCAA tournament game.

“[There’s] tremendous satisfaction knowing that at least we did that,” Mihalich said.

Still, for the group of intense competitors that Mihalich’s team is, having the chance of playing in NCAA tournament taken away beyond its control is incredibly agonizing for a group that all season long, was able to learn from where it went wrong until it was able to reach its ultimate goal just a few days ago.

Whether it was that first game against San Jose State, the embarrassing losses to William & Mary or St. Bonaventure, the concerning late-season defeat against Towson, or being eight minutes away from losing in the CAA finals to Northeastern for a second-straight year, Hofstra was always resilient enough to bounce back until it was able to do what it couldn’t over 18 prior seasons in the CAA.

No matter the loss or deficit within a game, there was always the next game or the next stretch within a game in which to recover. When it needed to the most, Hofstra did exactly that this season.

Having no NCAA tournament to play in as conference champions is a loss that the Pride can never overcome. Hofstra has unfortunately finally met its match with that one, something which may sting for a long time.

At some point, perhaps when the team is honored, as Mihalich predicts, it’ll be easier.

Until then, the knowledge of being CAA champions will have to be enough.

But the “what if” questions may haunt the Pride and its fans forever.

What if Hofstra’s vastly improved zone defense, one that helped the Pride go 17-1 this season when allowing fewer than 70 points, became a major headache for Villanova or another NCAA tournament opponent?

What if Buie and Pemberton (who will finish his stellar career 18 points short of 2,000) had each scored 20 points or more in their first NCAA tournament game? What if Ray (a 2020 CAA All-Tournament Team selection), Coburn, and starting sophomore center Isaac Kante (a Third Team All-CAA selection) — who along with Buie and Pemberton, gave Hofstra five double-figure scorers this season — complemented Buie and Pemberton enough to win an NCAA tournament game? Or, even two?

What if Hofstra played in the Sweet Sixteen without ever leaving its home state? What if the Pride was placed in the East Region, starting in Albany, and pulled off a couple of upset wins to reach the East Regionals at Madison Square Garden? What if Hofstra became a huge national story?

Longshot possibilities? Sure. But that’s what the NCAA tournament is all about each year. And it has certainly happened, despite the odds, many times, with teams no better than this year’s Pride.

All Hofstra ever wanted was that chance. Just like it had after those prior losses this season, as it had with the championship on the line, down four, late, against Northeastern.

That wasn’t too much to ask, it seemed, especially when Hofstra seemingly achieved an opportunity that was already earned.

But as Mihalich says, life isn’t always fair.

 

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