Countdown to 2015–16: Q & A with Hofstra junior guard Brian Bernardi
In the spring of 2013, Joe Mihalich learned that Brian Bernardi had decided to transfer from Southern Methodist, following his freshman season. Mihalich, who’d just been named the head coach at Hofstra, didn’t hesitate to tender a scholarship offer to bring the Staten Island native home.
While at the helm of Niagara, Mihalich had recruited Bernardi, who’d been a star on the New York prep scene. In this 6–2 guard with one of the sweetest shooting strokes in America, Mihalich saw a throwback: an answer to why he’d gone into coaching. Gym rat. Hates to lose. Won’t be outworked.
Bernardi committed to Hofstra, and after sitting out the 2013–14 season, it didn’t take him long to remember the flow. He was a starter from Day 1 of his sophomore season, and in his first game of ‘14–15, against Jacksonville, he sank five three-pointers in the first half on the way to finishing with 22 points. For his efforts, he was named the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Week.
Not only did Bernardi finish with 95 three-pointers — good for the second-best single-season tally in Hofstra history — he converted them at a 40.4% clip. It factored into Hofstra’s high-powered offense, which ranked 11th in DI in points per game (78.5) and three-pointers (303 — also a school record.) Their 15.4 assists were top-25 nationally, and, like those other two totals, led the CAA. Bernardi finished with averages of 11.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and just under a steal per game.
Hofstra won 20 games last season, but it was a loss that has galvanized them. After falling 92–91 in double overtime to William & Mary in the CAA tournament semis, one of the best college basketball games in recent memory, the Pride are champing at the bit for another crack at March Madness.
The best take? Mihalich, after that 2OT loss: “We ain’t going anywhere.” Upon signing a contract extension this offseason, Mihalich, again: “The mission is far from over.”
Bernardi took time on Friday morning to speak with Alley Whoops.
Alley Whoops: During your freshman season at SMU, you played a road game at Hofstra the day after the announcement that four Pride players had been arrested. Less than three years later, this team is the preseason favorite to win its conference. Is it poignant to think of how far this thing has come, so quickly?
Brian Bernardi: Being a part of rebuilding Hofstra has been amazing. It’s a really nice school, all the people are great, and what the coaching staff has done is amazing. When I was at SMU and we played Hofstra, I’d heard about everything that happened. We were the next game up. It was just crazy how everything happened.
AW: During your redshirt season, Hofstra went 10–23. A year later, that win total was doubled. What base did you see instilled, while you sat out, that helped key the success of ‘14–15?
BB: We just really worked our asses off. We wanted to get the program back to where it was when Charles Jenkins and Speedy Claxton played here. Speedy’s one of our assistant coaches now, and the whole staff has put in a winning attitude. Not accepting losing, really working our asses off to get the program back to where it was.
AW: Coaches often say that winning begins with getting good players. But a coach plays such a crucial role in reviving a place. What makes Mihalich so effective as a coach?
BB: Coach Mihalich really knows the game, and he’s a great person to be around. He’s taught me a lot already while I’ve been here. You trust him because he’s a people person. He’s a guy you know you can talk to.
AW: Coming home was obviously instrumental in your decision to transfer to Hofstra. Did the chance to play for Mihalich factor in, too?
BB: Being part of the process of rebuilding a program really interested me. I wanted to be a part of something special. Coach talked a lot to me about that. And obviously being closer to home helped, too.
AW: You spent considerable time running point during your season at SMU. How much did that help prepare you for Hofstra?
BB: Being with SMU coach (Larry) Brown, he pushed me to my limits — almost beyond them. He made me a better player, all around. He pushed me, and I never got pushed like that, ever, in my life. It’s a testament to how good of a coach he is.
And now, being with Speedy, he played with coach Brown, too (during Claxton’s ‘01–02 NBA rookie season with the Sixers). It was all about winning at SMU. Everything I learned from coach Brown, I tried to bring to Hofstra.
AW: Was that one of the keys to attending SMU: being coached by a Hall of Famer — who’s a fellow New York native, to boot?
BB: Oh yeah, when I found out that coach Brown was my coach at SMU, it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I just knew that he’d make me better. I’m really blessed to have had that opportunity.
AW: William & Mary coach Tony Shaver has described the Hofstra offense as “potent, and really hard to guard.” What makes it so effective?
BB: We just have so many weapons, so many scorers, so many options to go to. Me, Juan’ya Green (17.1 points, 61 threes) and Ameen Tanskley (16.2 points, 45% 3FG). And last season with Dion (Nesmith, 11.1 points, 45% FG), we were all shooters. We just have too many options, and it opens the floor.
AW: The old adage is, “Shooters shoot.” How often are you in the gym, getting jumpers up?
BB: Oh, I shoot pretty much every day. Whenever I have access to the gym, which is 24–7. I shoot until my arm hurts. I don’t really keep track of how many shots I take, but I do keep track of the percentage every day. I try to get better at making a better percentage.
AW: Every game of a season is important, but how much has that loss to William & Mary in the CAA tournament semis motivated this team?
BB: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt. This whole summer, we’ve had that loss on our minds. It really pushed us to another level. You can feel it in practice, in the weight room. Everyone’s pushing a little harder. We’ll be amped to play them again. No doubt.
AW: Upon signing his contract extension this spring, coach Mihalich said, “The mission is far from over.” Has that become a mantra for the program?
BB: Right. We’ve got our main core back. We did lose two seniors, but we have bigs that are good, and our guard play is good. It’s going to be really tough to guard us. I’m really excited for next year.
AW: What are some of your favorite things about being close to home?
BB: It’s so much better. I get to see my parents — they’re always asking to come up every weekend. I see my friends, I can go home whenever. And I love New York. I couldn’t stay away for too long.