Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich knows he probably will never again have someone like Lionel Simmons, who ranks third in scoring in NCAA history and took La Salle to three straight NCAA Tournaments when Mihalich was a young assistant with the Explorers.
There won’t be someone every season like Alvin Young, who led the country in scoring while guiding Niagara to a league title in Mihalich’s first season as a head coach. And there won’t be a Charron Fisher, who finished second in the nation in scoring while leading the Purple Eagles to 19 wins.
So, when someone like Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman emerges, Mihalich is comfortable adjusting his blueprint and putting the season in the hands of one of the most gifted scorers he ever has had.
“You gotta dance with the girl that brung you,” Mihalich said. “With our team, that’s kind of where we’re at. He needs to get the ball. He needs to get shots.
“Nobody’s offense is an equal-opportunity offense. It’s not like we’ve got five guys and everybody’s getting 13 shots. He’s somebody who is taking more shots because he should take more shots, and because he can make more shots.”
Last season, Hofstra’s plans changed when Wright-Foreman made an incredible — and unforeseen — leap, jumping from 4.1 minutes and 1.6 points per game as a freshman to becoming the CAA’s third-leading scorer (18.1 points). This season, the 6-foot-1 junior guard again unexpectedly has elevated to another tier. He is ranked third in the nation in scoring (25.1 points) and averages more shots than everyone but the nation’s top two scorers (Oklahoma’s Trae Young and Oakland’s Kendrick Nunn).
Already the first Hofstra player with back-to-back 30-point games since Charles Jenkins more than seven years ago, and the first with back-to-back 35-point games since Speedy Claxton some 20 years ago, Wright-Foreman could become the first Pride player in four decades to average at least 25 points.
“I didn’t know that I would be here one day because there’s a lot of people that can put the ball in the basket, not just me and Trae Young,” Wright-Foreman said. “It’s a gift that you’re given. … I try to remain humble and keep the same confidence and keep believing in myself.”
Belief has become easier, with Hofstra (12-7) winning five of its six past games and moving into a first-place tie in the CAA. Scoring remains relatively simple because Wright-Foreman’s game remains so unpredictable.
“Everything Justin does is pretty exciting,” Mihalich said. “He’s creative, and he does different things to score. He’s got that instinct for changing speeds when he has to. He’s got great range. He’s strong, and he’s got incredible hands. He doesn’t just do the same thing all the time, and that makes him hard to guard.”
The Queens native relies on assistant coaches like Claxton, the former Hofstra legend, for advice on how to handle the increased defensive attention. Wright-Foreman, who has the fifth-longest streak in the country of games (41) with double-digit points, also steals what he can from a group of underestimated guards who became stars.
“I watch a lot of Isaiah Thomas, and hear some of the things they say about him being short, with him being a lefty, too, you have to find that common ground,” Wright-Foreman said. “I used to love watching LeBron [James], but as I got more realistic, I tried to model my game after mid-major players, like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. I’m in a similar spot as them, so I look up to them.
“Especially Lillard, though. I feel like my game can be more similar to his, and I watch a lot of film on him. He gets to his pull-up so easy, and that’s one of my strong suits that I found this year. He’s my go-to. If I need something out of my game, I watch his highlights. He scores so effortlessly. It’s amazing.”
Wright-Foreman is currently the front-runner for CAA Player of the Year, an honor most recently brought back to Long Island by former teammate Juan’ya Green two years ago. That season, Hofstra lost in overtime in the CAA title game, coming closer to reaching the NCAA Tournament than any Pride team since the school’s last trip in 2001.
If Hofstra wants to dance this year, the Pride know who will have to bring them.
“Were [teammates] accepting of the fact that he takes a lot of shots and is our leading scorer and he gets a lot of that stuff? Was it immediate? No,” Mihalich said. “You have to be legitimate to be like that and it doesn’t come quickly all the time. Sometimes, guys are slow to accept that, but he’s been so good that everybody’s totally bought in now.
“Looking back on it last year, I’m not sure our guys ever believed we could truly we win it. This year, I think the difference is that we know we can win it.”
Games of the Week
St. John’s at Georgetown (Saturday, Noon)
For Chris Mullin, this is much bigger than a rematch with Patrick Ewing. Having lost seven straight games to start Big East play — including a 69-66 home defeat to Georgetown on Jan. 9 — St. John’s will have no better chance to win in the next few weeks, because the schedule continues with games against Creighton, Butler, Xavier, Duke and Villanova.
Seton Hall vs. Xavier (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.)
The Pirates can’t afford another loss if they are going to remain in contention for the Big East crown. After two terrible efforts in their past three games — a 20-point loss at Marquette and a 17-point loss at Creighton — Seton Hall will have to knock off the conference’s second-best team to avoid its first losing streak of the season.
Rutgers at Michigan (Sunday, Noon)
The Scarlet Knights picked up a much-needed 80-64 win over Iowa on Wednesday night, and could put their latest scare into a ranked team. Already with a win over Seton Hall, and an impressive effort in an overtime loss at Michigan State, Rutgers faces a Wolverines team with one loss since Dec. 4, led by 6-foot-11 junior Moritz Wagner.
Local Power Poll
1. Seton Hall
Record: 15-4, 4-2
Up next: Saturday (2:30 p.m.) vs. Xavier
Record: 12-8, 2-5
Up next: Sunday (Noon) at Michigan
3. St. John’s
Record: 10-9, 0-7
Up next: Saturday (Noon) vs. Georgetown
Record: 12-7, 6-1
Up next: Sunday (1 p.m.) vs. Canisius
Record: 12-7, 5-2
Up next: Saturday (4 p.m.) at Charleston
Record: 11-7, 4-3
Up next: Saturday (2 p.m.) vs. Lehigh
Record: 9-10, 4-3
Up next: Sunday (Noon) at St. Peter’s
Record: 12-6, 5-2
Up next: Saturday (4 p.m.) vs. Robert Morris
9. St. Peter’s
Record: 8-10, 2-5
Up next: Sunday (Noon) vs. Manhattan
10. Stony Brook
Record: 8-11, 3-2
Up next: Sunday (1 p.m.) at New Hampshire