Mo Cassara was kind enough to chat with us this morning—and really, why shouldn’t he chat with us, we named our kid after him! More on that this weekend, perhaps. Anyway, thanks to Mo for his time and for a very interesting Q&A in which he revealed news about two Hofstra newcomers as well as a planned trip overseas next summer.
Do you look at tonight as a second opener?
Yeah, a little bit of a new start for us, another opportunity at home. We know we haven’t played our best, so I think there’s a long way to go forward and another great opportunity. Certainly, it’s almost like a new start.
Do you feel as if this season, with so many new faces, is an entirely fresh start for you and the program?
I think it’s really a giant transition season for us. It’s a transition to a lot of new young faces and transfer guys trying to get back and into playing mode and playing everyday, competing everyday. And ultimately it’s going to transition into another group of young players for next year, when the majority of our team is going to be freshmen and sophomores.
In your first year here, you had Charles Jenkins, who was pretty good at selling tickets. Last year didn’t go like anyone wanted and some of that momentum was lost. What are you doing to try and sustain the fan interest and get fans out to the Arena this year?
I’m going to go and reach out to our students body as well as in the community [and tell them] the wins are going to come. You’ve been through this, Jay Wright’s been through this, Tom Pecora’s been through this. There’s some transition at this level, and when you have coaching changes and you have a lot of players leave the program—if you look back at that first year, we lost eight guys between the guys who left the program and guys who graduated, we lost eight of our 12 guys in one calendar year—[you realize] we’re going to have to take our time and build it back the right way. And I’m really confident, just like Jay did and Tom did, we’re going to get this thing going. It’s just going to take a little bit of time.
Last weekend was a tough one. What positives did you take from it?
I think the biggest thing you take from last weekend is experience—on the road, experience in everything from travel to [taking] buses to planes to pregame shoot-around to pregame meals to mentally preparing yourself for the game and things like that. We have a lot of guys who haven’t done that. Now with a couple of transfers that will join us, they haven’t done that in a couple years.
It’s really funny. When we got on the bus, I had to kind of introduce everybody to [longtime bus driver] Eddie [Dellostritto], because he didn’t know half the guys walking on the bus. Walk out, make sure you introduce yourself to Eddie, [tell him] who you are, where you’re from. Eddie didn’t know three-quarters of the team. So that shows you how many new faces we have.
Were you able to get some consistency and get a routine going in practice this week?
We had to take Monday off for practice but we were able to go Tuesday through Thursday, three good days of practice, which was good after a very tough, challenging opening weekend, going to a Big 10 school after one day of rest and not playing particularly well in both games. So to be able to get a little consistency, for our staff and everybody to start getting back into their houses, into our offices, all that kind of stuff—between all the variety of things that have happened, we have not had one full-strength week of practice without interruption. And we need that desperately.
What is the best part about having to rely so heavily on young players?
I think it’s almost like everyday is a new challenge, everyday is a new opportunity. You’re not quite sure what you’re going to get, whether in practice or [in a game]. That can be frustrating at times, but it’s awfully exciting.
Jimmy Hall went from not playing in the first half against Queens to being your best player in two straight games. Were you surprised by how quickly he adjusted?
You know what? On the court I’m not worried. His adjustments are coming quickly because he played in a great high school program, he’s been coached, he’s learning to play and he’s very talented. His overall adjustment will be determined on how well he picks everything else up—being a student-athlete, being a part of a college campus community. Those are things, as freshmen, he’s struggling to adjust to and learn [about]. We have very high expectations for him and we’re going to continue to push him on and off the court to excel. He’ll have a couple bumps in the road, but his abilities will certainly continued to be showcased on the court.
Moussa Kone has been your second-best player in both games. You spoke often last year of his work ethic and his ceiling. Are you starting to see him reach that potential?
My big thing with Moussa is his energy. When he brings energy and enthusiasm to the court [as well as] his big body and long arms or his rebounding or blocked shots—those are things that we desperately need. And he’s gone from being kind of a young freshman to really going out there and playing right away. If he’s going to play 25, 28 minutes, maybe 30 minutes at times, he’s got to go from a four or five rebounds a game guy to eight or nine rebounds a game. That’s the difference between a good, average player and a really good player in this program.
You’ve already had more players start a game this year than in either of your first two years. Was that by design or in reaction to the lopsided loss at Monmouth?
I think we have so many kind of moving parts still. Really, in the last week to 10 days, we just had two guys join the roster, essentially, in [Shaq] Stokes and [Taran] Buie, as crazy as that sounds. We had to kind of adjust and adapt and move around a little bit. As you know, it’s not my style, I like to stick with a starting lineup and get some consistency and continuity that way, This year, for a while, it’s going to be changing and moving around and we’re going to play guys that are doing everything we expect them to do everyday.
I think that’ll happen for a while and we’re going to move more guys in and out that are playing well and we’re going to challenge our five young guys to really play well and play consistently and play hard. And if they’re not, they’re going to have to learn how to do that. And sometime the best way to do that is by sitting on the bench. It’s really not my style to play that many guys, but we may have to do that. This is going to be kind of a moving and evolving transition with a young but deeper group.
We’re also going to redshirt Darren Payen, who we believe is arguably the most talented, top to bottom, player, he’s really the crown jewel of the recruiting class. So we’re going to back him up. He’s also very young. And we just signed [Gervelle] Kidd from Hargrave Military Academy, who we’re very excited about. We have a real nucleus of young guys that this team is going to be really freshmen and sophomore and just a couple underclassmen. Moving forward, we’re starting to put all those pieces into place. We’re currently in the process of working to schedule an international trip in August, we’re going to get to play five games and practice 10 days in August, so we’re putting building blocks in place for the future of this program. Unfortunately, we’re going to get some inconsistency and up and down play on the court right now.
Taran and Jamal Coombs-McDaniels are eligible tonight. What are their statuses?
Taran’s back, he’s been back and practicing hard, and now after a long year-and-a-half of being here—from summer of the previous year and all that—now he’s actually [ready to go]. He’s in pretty good shape, he’s ready to go. Jamal remains out indefinitely with complications from his microfracture surgery from almost two years ago. I don’t want people to still think he’s suspended, he’s ready to go in good academic standing and everything else, but [because of] his knee he has not practiced this year.
What do you expect to see out of Taran tonight?
I think some jitters. A little bit of that game speed stuff will take a little bit of time to get back into, so to speak. I think that will take a little bit of time for him. I want him to try to let the game come to him a little bit and do what he does well. I think for him, a lot of it is going to be mental. Some of it is going to be physical, but I think he’s got to get some time under his belt. Just like our freshmen kids, he’s got to get some experience. He needs to get some time and experience. He hasn’t played a lot of basketball in quite some time.
Last year’s home opener was quite a memorable one, and despite a rough season, you had two or three of the biggest non-conference wins in the entire CAA. Do you hope tonight is for this team what Cleveland State or Long Island was to last year’s team?
I hope so, I hope so I’m not sure when it’s going to come, whether it’s tonight or it’s Saturday or it’s Sunday or it’s next Saturday, but it’s going to come. And hopefully for me as a coach—you obviously hope it comes sooner than later, so not only can our guys get some confidence and feel good about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do and where we’re going, but also so I can get some sleep [laughs].