History in the Making?
Stony Brook has won 15 games in a row, is ranked 12th in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Poll and holds a two-game lead in the America East standings.
Still, coach Steve Pikiell knows this team will be measured by three games next month in the conference tournament. After three straight near-misses, anything short of a championship and trip to the NCAA tournament will be considered a disappointment for his veteran club.
“We embrace the challenge,” Pikiell said. “We are thankful for opportunities. When we’re good enough, we’ll get over the top, and if we’re not we’ll be close again next year. It’s a call here a rebound there a missed free throw here or there.”
The Seawolves have been oh, so close. If not for a nemesis they would’ve already danced in March Madness.
In 2013, Stony Brook entered as the No. 1 seed and Albany was the predetermined host site. Stony Brook fell to the hosts 61-59 in the semifinals.
In 2014, Stony Brook advanced to the championship game, which was played on its old home floor, Pritchard Gymnasium, but lost to Albany 69-60.
In 2015, the America East changed the format where the higher seed played host throughout the tournament. Albany won the regular season and defeated Stony Brook 51-50 when Peter Hooley swished a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining.
So, the Seawolves aren’t searching for motivation.
Their championship drive was revealed well before this season started. The five players who started the heartbreaking finals loss all returned, led by Jameel Warney, the two-time America East Player of the Year. And, each player has improved, Pikiell said.
“They each came back better offensively and defensively,” he said. “We’ve figured out ways to win this year, when we haven’t shot the ball well, when we’ve shot the ball well and haven’t made free throws, when we haven’t defended constant puzzle, no matter what’s working for you have to find a way to win the game."
While coach Pikiell built the program around rebounding and defense over the last 11 seasons, these Seawolves are also an explosive offensive team, scoring 78.6 points per game in conference and leading the America East in efficiency (117.6).
Of course the conversation starts with Warney, a 6-8, 240-pound forward who demands a double-team (or more) each night. Just when it looks as if Warney can’t possibly improve, he does. Earlier this week on his bobblehead night at Island Federal Credit Union Arena, he scored a career-high 36 points on 16 of 18 shooting and snagged 13 rebounds in an easy win over Hartford. He’s had five consecutive double-doubles and 56 in his career.
“He’s better mentally and physically, understands how teams are playing him basketball wise,” Pikiell said. “He’s a great passer and real unselfish kid. His ability to make other players around him is tremendous.”
Warney’s dominant physical presence requires opposing coaches to be creative, at times.
“When you stop the tape sometimes, you see four guys around him. It’s a box-and-one, inverted,” Pikiell said, with a chuckle. “He’s seen it all. He enjoys that, the different challenges. He’s a back-to-the-basket player, which nobody wants to be any more. He’s embraced the basket and the nuances of playing down there.”
Warney has received ample help, as well.
Senior guard Carson Puriefoy is second on the team with 14.6 points per game and has knocked down 43 percent of 3-pointers and 92 percent of free throws in America East action. Rayshawn McGrew (10.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is a tenacious forward, the ultimate glue guy who can also pound opponents on the low block. Ahmad Walker, a 6-4 transfer from Barton County CC, stuffs the stat sheet. He’s averaging 10.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg and leads the team with 106 assists.
“It’s a very unselfish group,” Pikiell said. “It’s a veteran group. We didn’t have any seniors last year so we invested a lot into these guys as younger players. Now those seniors are the most talented players, three captains, all league guys and the hardest workers. They share the ball and work the hardest in practice.”
That toughness and experience along with the America East’s stiffest defense (59.3 points per game allowed in conference) has produced the Seawolves’ fifth consecutive 20-win season. These seniors are 50-9 in regular season conference games in their career. They’re pillars at a program that’s joined Division I in 2002.
And they can make history by winning those three games in March.