Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Slowly But Surely, Stony Brook Building Relevance

Now in his eighth season, Steve Pikiell is finally getting respect he deserves for building Stony Brook into a perennial contender out of America East.  (Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University)

They have only been a full Division I member since 1999, and have really only been a successful program for about four of those fourteen years.  Yet when you look at Stony Brook University, far enough away from New York City to not be in the public eye; but still close enough to command considerable respect for being an up-and-coming program in the metropolitan area, you will see that the best days truly are yet to come for a school that is steadily beginning to build brand recognition on and off the basketball court.

Stony Brook's baseball program, an outfit whose most notorious alum is Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan, is coming off a Cinderella appearance in the College World Series that included an upset of Top 25 program Louisiana State and a popular, infectious "shock the world" rally cry that spread worldwide via Twitter.  On the basketball court, the Seawolves are coming off two consecutive appearances in the America East Conference championship game, and are considered the favorites to get there again this year, possibly making the third time a charm.

On paper, the Seawolves may not look like much, but from the opening tip until the final buzzer, no one team has played harder for forty minutes out of everyone I have seen through the 37 games I have covered this season; a credit to the intensity and natural competitive drive of eighth-year head coach Steve Pikiell, a former player and assistant coach under Hall of Fame mentor Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut before setting out on his own in 2005 to take over the state-run institution off exit 62 on the Long Island Expressway.

Pikiell's group, a scrappy yet resilient bunch, has proven this season that they can; and will, compete with almost anyone and everyone.  From an eleven-point loss to Pikiell's alma mater UConn that remains the largest margin of defeat for the 9-4 Seawolves this season, to their close losses against fellow BCS programs Maryland and Seton Hall, the message is simple: Stony Brook is not the prototypical low-major cupcake that most teams notoriously schedule early in the season to pad their record going into conference play.

"I expected a tough game from these guys," said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard after his Pirates narrowly escaped the Seawolves this past Friday night at the Prudential Center, coming away with a 60-59 victory only after an aggressive inbounds defense and Stony Brook guard Anthony Jackson not being able to get a good look at a three-point shot that would have given the Seawolves a major upset.  "That's a good basketball team.  Steve does a great job."

Steve Masiello, whose Manhattan team was defeated yesterday by the Seawolves in a gritty, defensive battle where his Jaspers were up 7-6 (no, that isn't a typo) at the 8-minute media timeout in the first half before losing 50-44, was equally praiseworthy.  "Give Stony Brook a lot of credit," the second-year coach and former Rick Pitino assistant reminded the media gathered at his postgame press conference.  "They're a team that could knock some people off in the NCAA Tournament.  Coach Pikiell does a terrific job."  By the way, the Seawolves' victory over Manhattan yesterday improved their record this season to 4-0 against teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, as Stony Brook also owns victories against Marist, Rider and Canisius from earlier in the year.

What is more than all of this is that no one player does it all by himself for Stony Brook.  In fact, the Seawolves did not have a double-figure scorer in their victory over Manhattan yesterday.  Three players average ten or more points per game on the year, including the starting backcourt of Anthony Jackson and Dave Coley; as well as freshman Jameel Warney, who may very well be the best rookie that half the nation has never heard of.  How some mid-major teams passed on this 6-8 forward and star in the making is a mystery of life, as he seems to get better every night.  Finally, the Seawolves' best player is a little bit of everything.  At 6-5, Tommy Brenton measures up to be a swingman on paper, but his heart and motor are that of a giant.  Averaging nearly eight points per game to go with eight rebounds and almost five assists per contest, Brenton is the quintessential "glue guy" that any coach would kill for in their rotation, one who consistently breeds success in all that he does despite not always reflecting it in the box score.  The remaining members of Pikiell's ten-man rotation are molded in much the same way, and have a trust level among themselves that is unparalleled for a program at any level, much less one in relative anonymity as a mid-major in the greater New York area that is treading water while swimming against the St. John's, Seton Halls and Ionas of the world.

"We've been really fortunate," said Pikiell; one of the classiest coaches in the nation, a guy who shakes the hand of every media member who seeks him out after a game and looks them square in the eye when answering a question, offering a genuine appreciation for just being the object of interest, if only for a few seconds.  "We lost four good players, (from last year's team, including star guard Bryan Dougher) and we just keep getting better.  They (the players) really believe in themselves.  They've got each other's backs, and I'm really proud of that."

The old adage states that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  Well, after watching this team three times this season and seeing them improve more and more each time out, this writer can definitely say that the sun is rising on the east end of Long Island, and will be for a long time to come.  It is no longer a question of "if" Stony Brook will rise to the forefront in New York college basketball, but rather one of "when;" and once the Seawolves do, it will certainly not be a "shock the world" instance that the university has embodied on past occasions.  These guys belong, and they have already broken down the door.

Welcome to the big leagues, Stony Brook.  Keep up the great work.

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