James Madison and Hofstra’s last game of the regular season will feature the longest standing rivalry between two CAA players.
It is a rivalry that originated in Lithuania, ran through China and now resides stateside.
It is a rivalry that began more than a half a decade ago but is now as intense as it has ever been.
And it will continue when Lithuanians Rokas Gustys, of the Pride, and Paulius Satkus enter the Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, VA, this weekend.
“I’m pretty sure he wants to destroy me once again this time,” Satkus said of his former teammate.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Satkus and Gustys grew up in different towns in their Eastern European nation and it was their mutual love for the game that brought the two together.
A teenage Gustys was playing for an academy in the town of Kaunas while Satkus was just six miles away, representing his hometown of Raudondvaris. They weren’t familiar initially but in Lithuania, where basketball reigns supreme, a game between neighboring communities is always battle.
In this case it just wasn’t a competitive battle, according to Gustys.
“We always beat that team,” Gustys says. “But two teams from the same city is a rivalry so it was kind of intense.”
Gustys’ Sabonis Basketball Academy may have been the powerhouse but both players soon began to stand out among their peers.
In 2012, both players were members of the Lithuanian club team, “Zalgiris Kaunas,” which placed second in the Euroleague International Nike Junior Tournament. They also happened to share a room in training camp for the team.
They got to know each other’s games well in the various competitions, which included games in China.
“He was always a physical guy,” Satkus says. “Someone you would love to have on your team but not so much to play against.”
“He’s more of a power forward, a pick-and-pop guy,” Gustys says. “I’m more of a banger. I really like contact. I’m not saying he doesn’t like a physical game… he’s Eastern European and we always like a physical game.”
But soon, both Eastern European players would take that physicality to different parts of the world. After the year of international ball, Satkus traveled to London to play for Barkey Abbey Academy before joining James Madison University in 2014.
While Satkus improved in Britain, Gustys joined the American powerhouse of prep schools, Oak Hill Academy.
In his first year with the team, he led Carmelo Anthony’s alma mater to a 41-4 record and a No. 4 ranking on USA Today’s Top 25 ranking. After another dominant year in 2013, he earned a spot on Hofstra – and a reunion with his old teammate.
DIFFERENT SETTING, DIFFERENT SYLE, SAME BATTLE
Even though James Madison beat Hofstra 69-63 earlier this season and Gustys only played nine minutes, Satkus was reminded just how good the CAA rookie can be.
“He just reminded me how physical and how aggressive he is,” the sophomore forward said. “He was always much better than me, much stronger than me so if I can’t win against him one-on-one, I’ll take a team win anytime.”
Gustys had also noticed development in certain aspects of his fellow Lithuanian’s game.
“He can make 3-pointers now,” Gustys says. “I like to shoot everything around the rim. I try to dunk more. I’ve never seen him dunk – I don’t think he can jump that high.”
Gustys said it was difficult to adjust that aggressive game to an American style that prohibits hand checking at the start of the season.
“From day one when I was playing in Europe, coach always told us to play physical and hard and crash the boards,” Gustys says. “…Here we have to be more careful to not get the fouls.”
Every once and a while, the rookie says he comes across a physical match-up, specifically when defending Charleston’s Adjehi Baru. But for the most part, he said the wars in the paint in Lithuania don’t even compare to the more finesse style of the States.
Satkus disagrees. He says basketball in the West is much tougher than the team-oriented style of Lithuanian play.
“Rokas plays physically no matter where he is but with my game, I would say the United States and England is more physical for me,” Satkus says. “Everyone is stronger and bigger and tries to use that more than people back home.”
The different opinions reflect the difference in their games and personalities. Regardless of those differences, they have found common ground in their shared culture.
In the days around that game in January, Gustys and Satkus found time to hang out in New York City and meet the founder of a Facebook page that unites Lithuanian athletes in the US.
They both consider themselves good friends off the court and share mutual respect.
It’s that respect that continues to feed their rivalry.
“Off the court it’s friends uniting,” Satkus says. “On the court, as you realize, it’s the only way it could be for Rokas.
“It’s a tough battle.”