Saturday, February 24, 2018

Senior Day: Rokas Gustys

Rokas Gustys didn’t just embody the best-case scenario for a Hofstra student-athlete by earning two degrees, becoming the first men’s basketball player to graduate under the head coach who recruited him in almost a decade and producing once-in-a-generation numbers.

Gustys, a native of Lithuania who arrived at Hofstra after spending his final two years of high school at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, also served as the poster child for what Hofstra strives to become as it tries to establish itself beyond the New York borders.

“It’s amazing what he’s done for Hofstra,” Joe Mihalich said this week of Gustys, who plays his final scheduled home game this afternoon when the Flying Dutchmen host Towson. “And it’s amazing, I’m proud to say, what Hofstra has done for him.”

Hofstra has spent most of its seven-decade existence attempting to shed its label as a commuter school. While there are tangible signs of progress — 47 states and 76 countries were represented within the undergraduate student body as of last fall — the fact remains locals continue to dominate the demographics. Forty-two percent of the fall 2017 undergraduates were from Long Island and 59 percent were from New York State.

Just six percent of undergraduates and 16 percent of graduate students this year are from overseas. That means Gustys, who posted a 3.19 GPA while earning his bachelor’s in December before beginning a masters in public relations, is among the approximately 260 internationally born graduate students. Back in the fall of 2014, he was among the roughly 350 students hailing from overseas.

The task of adjusting to and thriving in a new home is challenging for every new student, even those who only had to travel a couple hundred miles or less to Hofstra and particularly to those like Gustys, who long ago became accustomed to being on his own.

“He’s a tough guy — he’s got a lot of pride, he deals with stuff in an intense way,” Mihalich said. “He’s kind of been independent for a long time.”

Gustys, whose family watches every game online but has never seen him play at Hofstra, found support systems inside and outside the basketball program. 

“For me it’s easier because I’ve had a girlfriend since my freshman year, so we’ve been together for a long time and her family really supports me and kind of makes me feel like it’s my family,” Gustys said. “Other people — from the (basketball) managers to player to coaching staff — they treat me like family. It’s great. Everybody’s supportive.”

The basketball-watching part of the Hofstra community took note of Gustys in 2014-15, when a solid freshman year (5.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) offered plenty of hints he could become Hofstra’s best big man since the school joined the CAA. 

“For me, it was (about the) small picture) — we’re going to come here, we’re going to win games, we’re going to have 20-(win) seasons, hopefully win a championship,” Gustys said. “I had a picture for one year after year after year. My goal was coming in here, to try and get two degrees and leave here with a couple rebounds and a couple points.”

He began doing a whole lot more than that as a sophomore, when he produced the finest season by a center since Hofstra moved to Division I. Gustys averaged 13.5 points and 13.0 rebounds per game while putting up 22 double-doubles, including the program’s first two 20-20 games in 33 seasons, for a team that won the CAA regular season crown and fell in overtime of the CAA championship game.

More adjustments were required last season, when the post-Juan’ya Green/Ameen Tanksley Dutchmen finished 15-17 and Gustys missed four games due to injury while averaging “just” 9.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per game.

“Last year, we underachieved so much, it was just hard because we were kind of just getting to know each other,” Gustys said.

Gustys, with Justin Wright-Foreman as his pick-and-roll partner this season, has returned to his sophomore form as a senior. He’s averaging 10.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game and has 13 double-doubles, including another 20-20 game against William & Mary nine days ago. He recorded his 1,000th rebound on Nov. 25 and his 1,000th point on Jan. 5, joining Bill Thieben and John Irving as the only members of Hofstra’s 1,000-1,000 club.

On Feb. 1, Gustys moved past Irving to become Hofstra’s most prolific rebounder of the Division I era (Thieben’s three-season mark of 1,837, alas, remains out of reach). Entering today, Gustys he is just 28 rebounds away from breaking the all-time CAA rebounding record held by Hall of Famer David Robinson.

“A thousand rebounds is incredible, I’d be lying if I thought he would get a thousand rebounds,” Mihalich said. “I figured he’d get 1,200 points and I figured he’d get eight or nine hundred rebounds. I figured he’d have that kind of career. But he has exceeded, I think, everybody’s expectations, It’s pretty incredible.”

It’s a career missing only one thing, but with a fourth straight victory today, the Dutchmen will clinch third place in the CAA and enter the CAA tournament with legitimate hopes of earning the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001. 

“My goal from day one was not to break records here or put my name in record books or stuff like that,” Gustys said. “It was, hey, we’ve got to win as a team, go to the NCAA Tournament, get the ring. That was my goal since I came to the United States. In Europe, rings are not a big deal. You get a medal and it’s OK. You won. In here, you (get a) ring and (it creates) a great unity with the team meeting each other after 20 years. It’s special.

“Being a senior, and being with this team, having great players like Justin and Elijah (Pemberton) around me, winning is going to be everything. I don’t know, it’s going to be crazy. I dream about it, going there and cutting those nets down, getting it done where we couldn’t do it my sophomore year.”

Regardless of how the Dutchmen fare in the CAA Tournament, Gustys will have helped build a foundation at Hofstra. Not only is Gustys the first four-year senior to graduate under Mihalich, he’s the first Hofstra player to complete four years under the same head coach since Mike Davis-Sabb, Greg Johnson, Zygis Sestakos and Arminas Urbutis graduated under Tom Pecora in 2009.

Two years ago, Gustys was the only member of the starting five to have spent his whole career at Hofstra. Now, Gustys takes the floor in an entirely homegrown lineup that also features a junior (Wright-Foreman), a couple sophomores (Eli Pemberton and Desure Buie) and a freshman (Stafford Trueheart).

“Everybody else was a transfer and stuff like that, but Rok’s the guy, he’s the model,” Mihalich said. “We’ve got Rok now, he did this. Now Justin’s going to do a similar thing. And then Elijah’s going to do it. He’s the model for all this.”

In more ways than one. The Gustys fans see on the court has symbolized the optimal experience for a Hofstra student, one that progresses imperfectly, even as graduation beckons. The free throws are an adventure, as is defense sometimes, and Gustys was whistled for three technical fouls this season in games that were all decided by six points or fewer (the Dutchmen were 1-2). 

But they have also watched a player do things that may never be done at Hofstra ever again. And come May, when Gustys’ family travels to Long Island for the first time to watch him graduate with a second degree, they will see a son and a brother who traveled nearly 5,000 miles across an ocean to maximize every opportunity he had, on and off the court. 

“Every day wasn’t a bed of roses,” Mihalich said. “We had our ups and downs. He had his injuries to deal with. He had some stretches where he was playing great, some stretches where he didn’t play as good as he wanted to. But that’s life.”

That’s college.

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