Hofstra reboot required more than Pride

Zeke Upshaw & Co. have already won as many games this season as Hofstra did in all of 2012-13. Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY Sports

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Hofstra lost a game Saturday afternoon, but the program appears back on the winning track.

Joe Mihalich’s undermanned Pride led Northeastern for all of the first half and nearly halfway through the second, before the Huskies snatched control and salted the game away 70-57.

It may look like a setback, but it was actually another step in the right direction -- despite what a despondent Mihalich had to say immediately after the game.

“We let a great opportunity slip away today,” Mihalich said. “It’s very disappointing.”

Despite Saturday’s loss, Hofstra already has as many wins (seven) as it did all of last season, and remains above .500 (3-2) in the Colonial Athletic Association. Not bad for a team picked to finish in last place, that had just four scholarship players when Mihalich was hired away from Niagra back in April.

Why just four players? In case you’ve forgotten, Hofstra endured a hellish 2012-13 season, during which six different players were arrested -- including four for campus burglaries. The Pride finished 7-25, third-year coach Mo Cassara was dismissed, and Mihalich was brought aboard -- with nearly an empty cupboard.

What’s happened so far in 2013-14 is nearly unbelievable. Hofstra is holding its own with essentially eight players (plus a couple of walk-ons), in a very competitive conference, with perhaps the most unlikely leading scorer in the country.

Zeke Upshaw, a 6-foot-6 swingman from Chicago, averaged 1.6 points per game in three seasons at Illinois State. But this season at Hofstra, Upshaw is averaging 18.8 points per game -- ranking him among the top 60 scorers in Division I.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Upshaw said, following the loss. “Obviously not tonight, but in general, I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

Upshaw elected to stay close to home after graduating from high school, but couldn’t crack the rotation in three years with the Redbirds, never averaging more than 7.4 minutes per game. After completing his undergraduate degree a year early, he decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s free transfer rule, and went looking for another school where he could take graduate classes and use his final year of athletic eligibility immediately.

Mihalich was desperately scouring the country for players, and got a tip on Upshaw from a scout in Chicago. Upshaw had never even heard of Hofstra. “I probably had five or six choices,” Upshaw said. “Once I did research on the program here at Hofstra, and I saw how many guys had left, I felt like there was a better opportunity here.”

He has certainly made the most of it. Upshaw went off for 37 points in an overtime loss at Richmond in November, and 31 points in a three-point loss at Tulane on Jan. 2. He’s posted eight more 20-plus point games, and tied a Hofstra record by knocking down seven 3-pointers in a win over UNC-Wilmington.

Upshaw has exceeded his own expectations, and his new coach’s. “Absolutely,” Michalich said. “And he’s not just scoring -- he’s having a really good year across the board.”

Hofstra’s second-leading scorer is a graduate student transfer, too. Dion Nesmith had an even more roundabout route to Hofstra. The 6-foot point guard from New Jersey began his college career at Northeastern -- as a quarterback on its football team. When Northeastern cut its football program, Nesmith transferred to Monmouth, where he got much more playing time than Upshaw did at Illinois State -- he was a two-year starter, averaging 8.4 points and 1.9 assists per game. Still, he’s upped his averages to 12.9 points and 4.1 assists this season.

With Upshaw and Nesmith leading the way, and solid contributions from the four holdovers, plus a couple freshmen, Hofstra had won three straight conference games heading into the matchup with Northeastern. But the Pride appeared to run out of steam in the second half against a Huskies team that went 10 deep.

Nesmith did his best to keep the game close, scoring a team-high 18 points. Upshaw chipped in 12, but had an off-shooting night, shooting 3-for-13.

“I don’t know what was worse, our defense or our offense,” Mihalich said.

Losing clearly hasn’t gotten any easier for Mihalich, despite the trying circumstances he’s working under this year. But the future looks bright. Two double-digit scorers from his last Niagra team came to Hofstra along with him and will be eligible next season. He also has a talented transfer from SMU, and a promising young point guard from Puerto Rico.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Mihalich said. “It doesn’t feel like it right now, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

But this season is important to him, too.

“I truly believe we’re gonna get this turned around,” Mihalich said. “And what I hope is, in the years down the road, that people will look back and say, you know what, I don’t know how much they won that year, but that was the first group who really got everything turned around. They changed the culture, that group. That guy Zeke Upshaw, and that guy Dion Nesmith ... they were the ones that got us headed in the right direction.”

They’re off to a great start.