The University of Tennessee is the top-ranked team in men’s college basketball. The Volunteers have won 16 consecutive games, the longest active winning streak in the country — but only because Hofstra, on Long Island, got upset by Northeastern on Saturday.
That is not a misprint. From late November until the second day of February, the Hofstra Pride did not lose a game, and almost no one noticed. When a program like Duke or Kentucky wins 16 games in a row, the team is featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” every night and makes the cover of Sports Illustrated. When the Hofstra Pride win 16 games in a row, they are lucky if their fellow students even know about it.
That was not entirely their fault; Hofstra’s winter break ran from mid-December until the end of January, so students weren’t on the Long Island campus for six home games. Still, Hofstra’s average home attendance this season is 1,720.
The lack of attention has had little effect on how the team experienced the streak, though, or its determination to begin another one. When the streak finally came to an end Saturday with the defeat in Boston, Hofstra Coach Joe Mihalich watched the tape of the 75-61 loss twice on the four-hour bus ride back to Long Island
“As I said to the team, ‘If everyone looks in the mirror and says, what could I have done better?, then we’ll get better,” Mihalich, 62, said Sunday. “It was great. It was fun. We enjoyed the ride. But it’s not the end all and be all.”
Hofstra, which plays in the Colonial Athletic Association, has not been to the N.C.A.A. Tournament since 2001. Because the C.A.A. generally receives only one bid, the Pride (19-4) most likely will have to win the conference tournament in Charleston, S.C., next month just to qualify. Winning streaks, even long ones, usually aren’t enough to sway the selection committee when it hands out the at-large spots.
Hofstra’s hopes to win its way in largely rest with a 6-foot-2 senior guard from Queens, Justin Wright-Foreman, who gave serious consideration to transferring away from the university after scoring a total of 44 points during his freshman year.
Wright-Foreman had expected a bigger role coming into college. Then he averaged only 4.1 minutes a game for a team that won the C.A.A. regular-season title, lost in the conference championship game and qualified for the National Invitation Tournament.
He spoke to his mother, Janice Wright; his uncle; and to the Hofstra assistant coach Craig Claxton, a former Pride star known as Speedy before deciding to stay. The decision, he said, was in part to remain close to his ailing grandmother and his three younger brothers. His mother’s message? “Everything is going to get better in due time.”
Now Wright-Foreman is averaging 25.5 points a game, third-best in Division 1, and 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He has reached double figures in scoring in 76 consecutive game and is now 35 points shy of 2,000 for his career. N.B.A. scouts have begun to chatter about him, turning up at Hofstra games even when others do not.
“He scored 44 points as a freshman, he scored 42 points in a game this year,” Mihalich said, referring to a Wright-Foreman outing that he capped with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the final seconds of a 75-72 home win over Northeastern on Jan. 5.
He is not a one-man show, though. The junior guard Eli Pemberton is averaging 15.5 points and 4.9 rebounds, and the senior point guard Desure Buie averages 10.2 points and 5.0 assists.
Still, the crowds at Hofstra have been a far cry from the days when ticket scalpers sold tickets to see Claxton play in the late 1990s. Back then, Hofstra was in the America East Conference, and Claxton was on his way to the N.B.A.
“I don’t think the community has embraced us like that yet, and it’s a shame because they’re not going to get to see a really talented kid play,” said Claxton, who helped lead Hofstra to the N.C.A.A. Tournament in 2000 and later won an N.B.A. championship with the San Antonio Spurs. “I mean, we only have four more home games, and they really missed out.”
Wright-Foreman and his teammates don’t seem bothered by the lack of attention. “We’re just more focused on what’s going on in this moment now,” Wright-Foreman said. “We just want to win a lot of games.
Hofstra’s success hasn’t gone completely unnoticed; the former Hofstra coach Jay Wright, now a national-title winner at Villanova, talked up his old team after a recent win.
“I’m loving it,” Wright told reporters. “Watching every game, man.”
Wright also texted Mihalich, saying, “Our entire family always follows HU — keep up the great work! Proud of you!”
While Wright-Forman’s teammates bonded this past summer over Monopoly games in a dormitory lounge that involved as many as seven players, Wright-Foreman was often in the gym working on his game.
Mihalich called Wright-Foreman an N.B.A.-level scorer. “Is he an N.B.A. defender? Probably not,” he said. “Is he an N.B.A. rebounder? No. But he’s an N.B.A. scorer.”
Claxton said that he sees parallels between this team and the 1999-00 Hofstra team that made the N.C.A.A. Tournament; each, he said, had a star complemented by those around him.
Wright-Foreman is just glad he stayed around long enough to experience it. The streak may be over, but there’s a chance to start a new one on Thursday.
“I’m happy I was able to mature enough and just tell myself that this is where I need to be and I’m just going to work as hard as I can,” he said.