Hofstra’s March Madness dreams could finally become reality

Hofstra’s March Madness dreams could finally become reality

Seton Hall is certain to reach the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year. Rutgers could dance for the first time in 29 years.

Several of their neighbors have reason to believe they’ll be invited, too.

With conference tournaments kicking off Wednesday, here are the top local storylines to follow:

Will Hofstra’s NCAA Tournament drought finally end?

For the third time in five years, the Pride enter their conference tournament as the favorite, still searching for their first invitation to the Big Dance since 2001.

Despite the departure of superstar guard Justin Wright-Foreman from last season’s 27-win team — the most since the program joined Division I in 1966 — Hofstra (23-8, 14-4 CAA) became the first Colonial team to win back-to-back regular-season crowns outright since 2009. Led by senior guard Desure Buie — who leads the team with 18.5 points, 5.9 assists and 2.1 steals, while shooting 41.7 percent on 3-pointers — the Pride boast five double-digit scorers and just one loss since Jan. 23.

But more talented Hofstra teams have struggled with the weight of expectations with their dreams at stake.

Last year, the top-seeded Pride were taken to overtime in the semifinals by fifth-seeded Delaware, before losing to Northeastern, 82-74, in the championship game. In 2016, the top-seeded Pride dropped the title game in overtime against UNC-Wilmington.

MAAC Mayhem

It’s rather apropos that the MAAC Tournament is in Atlantic City this year. Selecting the winner is like rolling dice — it’s almost impossible to predict. Before last year, the top seed hadn’t won the tournament since Siena in 2010. This season’s top two teams (Siena, Saint Peter’s) were picked to finish sixth and ninth, respectively.

Despite the season-long absence of coach Tim Cluess due to health reasons, Iona (11-14, 9-9 MAAC) could win the league for a record fifth straight year. The Gaels have won six of their past eight games, remain a potent offensive force and have championship muscle memory, led by seniors Tajuan Agee and E.J. Crawford.

Early in league play, Manhattan looked like a contender to win the league, but the Jaspers (12-15, 8-10) have skidded, losing nine of their last 13 league games.

Meanwhile, Saint Peter’s (16-12, 13-6) has won 10 of 12 with an underclassmen-led group, directed by second-year coach Shaheen Holloway, who has led the Peacocks to their second winning season since 2011.

Stony Brook’s familiar roadblock

The Seawolves lost longtime coach Steve Pikiell to Rutgers in 2016, following the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. After last season’s 24-win campaign, Jeff Boals left for Ohio, leaving Stony Brook to promote Geno Ford as the school’s third coach in five years.

Little else has changed.

Ford, who previously coached at Kent State and Bradley, and the Seawolves (19-12, 11-6 America East) captured the No. 2 seed in their conference tournament despite losing the regular-season finale on Tuesday, 75-67 to UMBC.

Though home games are assured for Saturday’s America East quarterfinal and the semifinals on March 10 if it wins, Stony Brook will likely need to win at reigning-champion Vermont to return to the NCAA Tournament. The two teams — who have combined to win all but one regular-season title since 2010 — have had multiple postseason battles in recent years, including Stony Brook’s road semifinal triumph in 2015 and title-game win in 2016.

Raiquan Clark’s final run

Raiquan Clark recently became the first player in LIU’s storied history to score 2,000 career points. Now, the former walk-on could lift his legacy to another level.

Though the Sharks — formerly known as the Blackbirds — failed to meet the expectations set as the Northeast Conference’s preseason favorite, Clark led the team to the No. 4 seed, while topping the league with 19.9 points. LIU (14-17, 9-9 NEC), which hosts No. 5 Fairleigh Dickinson in Wednesday’s quarterfinal, has yet to rise above .500 this season, as in 2018, when coach Derek Kellogg’s team went on an unforgettable three-game run to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth.

In that run, Clark produced 28 points and seven assists in a one-point semifinal win. In the title game, he put up 20 points and eight rebounds in a road upset of No. 1 Wagner.

Jeff Neubauer’s final stand

Fordham (7-21, 1-15 A-10) is riding a 10-game losing streak and is on track for another last-place finish in the Atlantic 10. Barring a major surprise, coach Jeff Neubauer will be out after five seasons, the latest failure to revive a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1992.

Neubauer, who previously coached at Eastern Kentucky, began his tenure with Fordham’s first winning season in nine years, but has gone downhill since losing predecessor Tom Pecora’s players. The last three years, Fordham is 15-55 in the Atlantic 10 and 41-82 overall, with standout players fleeing every season.

According to sources, Fordham wants its next coach to have New York ties and head-coaching experience.

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