Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 7: All of Our Friends

Justin Wright-Foreman took Hofstra’s already-excellent offense to a different level

If you’re much of a fan of mid-major basketball, you already know who Joe Mihalich is. Coach Mihalich has been around for a long, long time: the 15-year head coach at Niagara who took the Purple Eagles to their only two modern-era NCAA Tournament appearances, now followed by a six-year stint at Hofstra with two CAA regular season championships. While Mihalich has made adjustments over time, the general thesis remains the same. It’s a high-powered 4-out motion offense that likes to push the pace and get a lot of its work done in transition. At Niagara, you knew something was crazy when Mihalich’s offenses reached as high as 16th (2004-05) nationally on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.

Five straight Top 75 finishes offensively at Hofstra have only added to the pile; Hofstra only has seven in its 23-year KenPom history. However, the latest one took them to a sphere of success they never would’ve imagined. This is what happens when you have Justin Wright-Foreman on your basketball team:

Wright-Foreman went from a freshman who scored 44 points his first year on campus to a guy that scored 48 points in a single game his senior year. In between, Mihalich saw an attitude hellbent on improvement: “His maturity became one of his key character traits. He knew how to play, he knew not to foul.” It’s that type of mentality that allowed Mihalich to play Wright-Foreman an insane 92.9% of potential minutes, including a full 55-minute game in a triple-overtime win over William & Mary. It really did seem like Wright-Foreman was the most relentless player in college basketball:

I’ll let Mihalich have the floor on the story of Wright-Foreman’s recruitment. “The moment I realized we wanted him and that he had a special gift, I was in Vegas and he was a rising senior in high school. I had to catch a flight, and the last game I was going to see was Justin’s game. I remember watching the first quarter and I texted my assistants “man, it’s the end of the first quarter and he’s already got 13, 14 points.” I remember texting them at halftime saying “Jesus, it’s halftime and he’s got 25.” Then again, I texted them at the end of the third quarter and said “look, I gotta go catch my flight, it’s the end of the third quarter, he’s got 38 points, we want him.”” Mihalich and company never looked back, and they got Hofstra’s best player since Speedy Claxton as a result of it:

Obviously, Hofstra has more than one player on their team. Mihalich and his staff worked incredibly hard to build the right type of team around their star, and they were incredibly successful in doing so. Hofstra ranked 11th nationally in eFG%, third in TO%, first in FT%, and 13th in 3PT%. All of the attention paid to Wright-Foreman certainly helped, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have players that can make plays on their own:

Ever since Mihalich arrived on campus in 2013, Hofstra has been one of the most turnover-averse programs in all of college basketball. Per Bart Torvik, only six programs in America have committed fewer turnovers since 2014 than the Pride. “I think it speaks to the type of player we recruit because we always want to recruit a kid that can dribble, pass, shoot, and make plays,” notes Mihalich. “We have very few guys on the floor that can’t use a ball screen or can only catch and shoot.” Eli Pemberton is a type of player he’s talking about:

As are guys like Tareq Coburn, a 43.1% three-point shooter:

It’s not everything to their offense, but Hofstra was one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country last year. Mihalich’s offenses have regularly been among the nation’s leaders in three-point attempts per game since he started at Niagara. “It spreads the floor out, I just think defensively, we love it when we see a kid that can’t shoot,” he says. “Not to over-simplify it, but three’s more than two.” Sometimes the simple answer is the best one:

Being ahead of the curve is nothing new for Mihalich. In fact, it’s what he grew up knowing, thanks in large part to playing under Paul Westhead at La Salle. “Back then, I got a little bit of a shine or liking for playing fast in a fast-break system,” he tells me. “We like to play fast, we like for the floor to be open. We like to put our players in a position to make plays, either for themselves or for somebody else.” Playing this type of unselfish basketball is obviously imperative to a team’s success. Even if you have a true star on the roster, you need the all-important Glue Guys to fill it out. Enter someone like Jacquil Taylor:

He’s a case study in taking exactly what the defense gives you. Taylor made 70.2% of his field goal attempts last year, resulting in the ninth-highest Offensive Rating among 2,189 qualifying players in D-I, per KenPom. “He just kept getting better as the year went on [because he understood his abilities],” says Mihalich. It’s guys like that that can help take a team from good to great.

While Hofstra will look a lot different in 2019-20 – JWF is gone, sure, but so are three other rotation members – it’s a near-cinch that they’ll still have an offense worth watching. “Obviously, we want to still keep making a lot of shots,” says Mihalich. On the ball screens that have made his offense famous: “it’s just how we like to play.” He’s a man of smart, simple statements, and his deceptively simple offense can and will kill your defense, as demonstrated by 40+ years of work.

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