Beware CAA teams: Hofstra's Rokas Gustys 'is himself' again

The compliments for Hofstra junior Rokas Gustys, a 6-9 rebounding machine, come from all corners of the Colonial Athletic Association.

“You can’t move him. You can’t stop him,” said Pat Skerry, the head coach at Towson.

“He is a tremendous competitor,” said Bill Coen, the veteran mentor at Northeastern. “He scores with his back to the basket and can anchor your defense.”

“He is obviously a tremendous rebounder and a presence on the defensive end,” said Delaware head coach Martin Ingelsby, whose team will face Hofstra on Friday in the CAA Tournament.

Gustys, a junior from hoop-crazy Lithuania, led the CAA and was second in the nation in rebounding last season at 13.0 boards per contest. He grabbed at least 10 rebounds in 28 games and was a first-team all-CAA and CAA all-defensive performer.

He was well on his way to matching those numbers this season before he missed four games with a lower body injury. The fourth game came Feb. 9 at Towson, and he returned to the lineup on Feb. 11 in a win at Northeastern as he had two points and 12 rebounds in 24 minutes.

“He is himself now,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said Tuesday. “He is back to getting double-doubles. He is healthy now. He has some pep in his step. He makes us really good when he is at his best. He is fourth in the country in rebounding.”

Gustys has started 27 of the 31 games and he is averaging 9.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per contest as No. 8 seed Hofstra (15-16, 7-11 CAA) faces No. 9 Delaware (12-19, 5-13) on Friday at 6 p.m. ET in the CAA Tournament. The Pride won both meetings this season with the Blue Hens by a total of 10 points.

The Pride have won their last two games. “We are playing good right now,” Mihalich said. “That has been the goal all season. We are in a spot right now where we believe in ourselves.”

“We have to find a way to keep him from the basket,” Ingelsby said of the Hofstra big man. “It is a great challenge for our frontline.”

No. 7 seed JMU (9-22, 7-11) will meet No. 10 seed Drexel (9-22, 3-15) in the second game Friday night.

The quarterfinals will be held Saturday as the Hofstra-Delaware winner will meet top seed UNC Wilmington (26-5, 15-3) at noon ET. No. 4 seed William & Mary (16-13, 10-8) will face No. 5 Elon (17-13, 10-8).

The evening session will include No. 2 seed College of Charleston (23-8, 14-4) against the winner of JMU and Drexel while No. 3 Towson (19-12, 11-7) facing No. 6 seed Northeastern (15-15, 8-10).

Towson is without senior John Davis, who is out for the season after he was shot in a drive-by shooting in his native Philadelphia the weekend of Feb. 12. Davis averaged 11.8 points per game this season.

“We are trying to play for John,” Skerry said Tuesday. “He sits next to me on the bench. This is not the type of injury you draw up. The next guy has to step up.”

The semifinals are Sunday and the CAA title game is Monday at 7 p.m. ET.

Gustys had his 11th double-double of the season with 15 points and 14 rebounds at James Madison on Thursday, Feb. 23 and then had 15 rebounds against William and Mary on Saturday. He has 19 games with at least 10 boards this season and he ranks 13th on the CAA all-time list with 924 career rebounds with one more year of eligibility left.

While Gustys was out of the lineup Hunter Sabety, a 6-9 forward from Oceanside, N.Y., saw more playing time for the Pride. He played well in one game against Delaware when Gustys was out.

“Hunter had some big games with Rock out,” Mihalich said. “It is all about the opportunities. It is about what you do when you get one.”

Hofstra is led in scoring by Justin Wright-Foreman, who is averaging 18 points per contest.

Deron Powers is scoring 12.9 points per contest, Eli Pemberton is averaging 12.8 and Brian Cernardi is scoring 12.1 points per outing.

Last season Hofstra lost in the title game to UNC-Wilmington in Baltimore despite the strong play of Gustys.

Gustys grew up in Kaunas, Lithuania and began playing basketball in first or second grade. Like many young boys he was more attracted to basketball than soccer.

“The coach came in and was looking for some players,” he said.

Gustys grew up as a fan of Lithuania native Linas Kleiza, who came to the United States to play in high school at Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md. He was drafted out of the University of Missouri in the first round by Portland, played for the Denver Nuggets from 2005-09 and after that played overseas.

He is one of several Lithuanians to play in the NBA.

So why is hoops big in his native country?

“They put a lot of money into it, and new arenas are built every year,” Gustys said.

Gustys came to the United State to play prep ball for powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in southwest Virginia.

“I was 18 years old and I was looking for an opportunity to play,” he said. “I had to improve my English skills and I wanted to come to the U.S. and get an education.”

He was recruited from several top college programs, including Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Rhode Island, Georgia, Tulane and Hawaii.

But he decided to go with Hofstra.

“I was just looking for a great fit for myself,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to the big-name school. The (Hofstra) coaches contacted me my senior year at Oak Hill. We had a great relationship. Coach Mihalich is great coach. He really knows how to push you and help you.”

“You identify some prospects and work your tail off,” Mihalich said. “That is kind of what happened here. He realized this was the perfect place for him and it has proven to be that.”

Like many top Division I players he hopes to go pro after college.

“I will also have a backup plan for my academics,” said Gustys, a rhetorical studies major.

David Driver is a freelance writer based in Cheverly, Md. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonVaDriver

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