It’s easy to become the subject of lofty expectations when you average 13.5 ppg and 13.0 rpg as a sophomore.
Expectations were indeed high for Rokas Gustys as a junior last season after posting that incredible line in 2015-16. His 66.3% shooting as a sophomore was good for sixth in the nation, while his rebounding average ranked second in all of Division I. His incredible year led to a selection to the All-CAA First Team, with the sky the limit.
However, expectations seldom become reality, and the Lithuanian center struggled to match the hype in his junior year; at least in the scoring department.
“He had a tough year last year,” head coach Joe Mihalich said of Gustys this offseason. “I think exactly one year ago at this time I think he was thinking ‘I was first-team all conference last year, going to be this year. Who knows, maybe I’ll be player of the year, I’m going to lead the country in rebounding,’ and then he got some injuries and he didn’t click with the point guard like he did two years ago.”
Gustys notched double figure points in just three of his first nine games last season, with a high of 11. It wasn’t until an early December showdown with St. Bonaventure that the talented big man finally broke out with a 20-point effort. That performance kicked off a string of four games with double-digit points.
Despite his scoring struggles, Gustys remained stellar in the other prominent aspect of his game: rebounding. Through those same first nine games, Gustys nabbed double-digit rebounds in all but two, headlined by a 25-rebound performance against South Dakota. That tally remains the highest of his career thus far.
Gustys ended the 2016-17 season averaging 12.1 rebounds along with 9.2 points per game. His production on the glass was enough to have him ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding – a list headlined by Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado (13.1) and Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan (12.6) – but Gustys’ drop in scoring led to a snub from the postseason All-CAA squads.
“Mentally and physically I think that experience wasn’t a fun one to go through, but it made him better,” Mihalich added. “I think this year he has a better frame of mind.”
That better frame of mind and a promise of better health have expectations high again as Gustys enters his senior season. With major milestones in sight, another strong year will ensure Gustys leaves a lasting legacy as one of the best frontcourt players in Hofstra history.
Through three seasons, Gustys already ranks third on Hofstra’s all-time rebounding list with 933. He trails John Irving by 253 for second place, but lags far behind Bill Thieben’s 1,837 for the all-time program lead.
Gustys is also approaching the 1,000 point plateau. He currently sits 143 points shy of the achievement, though would likely already be there if not for poor free throw shooting. For his career, Gustys is just 125-325 (38.5%) from the charity stripe.
Over the summer, Hofstra took part in an offseason trip to Canada where they faced off against four international squads. During that trip, Gustys averaged 16.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game.
A major factor in Gustys’ return to top form will be the presence of frontcourt mate Hunter Sabety. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Sabety possesses the size to push Gustys on the practice court, as well as spell him during games. Although Sabety averaged just 4.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last season, he led the team with 40 blocked shots.
Over a four-game period last winter while Gustys sat out with a lower body injury, Sabety filled in efficiently to average 10.0 ppg and 8.8 rpg. His presence on the bench will surely solidify Hofstra’s frontcourt this season, and allow Gustys the latitude to play free of foul burdens.
“He tries to battle with me all the time to make me better and of course I make him better so it’s just a great matchup,” Gustys said of his rapport with Sabety. “We’re about the same size, about the same weight class, so I feel like it’s just good. He pushes me, I push him. He works really hard, and it’s good to have a guy like that who can actually push me and give me difficulties.”
Overall, Gustys is looking forward to his senior season, and anxious to get back out on the court to prove what he can do at the highest level.
“There’s a lot of expectations; It’s my last year,” Gustys added. “Of course we want to win a championship and go to the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, win as many games as possible and just have a great time and great memories. That’s what’s most important.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.