After a 25-win season, Steve Pikiell has reason to be optimistic about future at Stony Brook. (Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University)
At last night's MBWA Haggerty Awards dinner, Steve Pikiell was rightfully recognized as the metropolitan basketball writers' choice for Coach of the Year honors, the second time this award was bestowed upon him after a 25-win season that is; at least for the time being, the most successful in the brief history of Stony Brook University.
Pikiell, who was also named Coach of the Year in the America East for the third time in four seasons, was gracious enough to spend some time with us before last night's festivities got underway, putting the Seawolves' historic campaign in perspective while also giving us a glimpse into life on Long Island without warrior forward Tommy Brenton.
Jaden Daly: Steve, 25 wins, best season in program history, first-ever postseason win; and out of the eight losses, only two by double digits. What does that say about this team, how far they've come, and what they've molded themselves into?
Steve Pikiell: You know, it's really exciting. We've come a long way. My first year, (we were) 4-24, 2-14 in the league; and this year, to be 14-2 in conference play, (it's) a total reversal of where we were. We've got great kids, I've got a great staff, and the university really as a whole is just exploding, I mean, our gym is being redone and should be done next year at this time, and you know, the whole university really, the excitement going on, Joe Nathan Field, (College) World Series, our football team won a league championship again, fourth in five years, our men's and women's lacrosse programs are very good, so it's just exciting for our university, and our basketball team continues to get better. I think better days are still ahead for us.
JD: It's like they haven't missed a beat...coming into this year losing Bryan (Dougher) and bringing back most of the team, and then finding Jameel (Warney) who; let's be honest, could play in the Big East if he wanted to with the numbers he put up. What does it say about the continuity of this program and how much your kids believe in one common goal?
SP: We're really an unselfish team, and I was nervous coming into this year because we lost four seniors, all four signed pro contracts, so they're playing in Europe, and the guys that played behind those players all stepped up. Anthony Jackson had a great year as Bryan's replacement, Dave Coley had an all-league kind of season, Tommy Brenton does everything for us, was the player of the year in the conference, but I really like the development of Eric McAlister. Jameel certainly comes in, and as a freshman, was ready to play from day one and was rookie of the year in the conference. So, I think we developed players, I think they all got better, and the guys that got an opportunity to play more minutes, you know, showed that they were worthy of more minutes, but really, this was an unselfish team all year long. We had nine guys that were the different leading scorers in the games of the twelve guys that we played on our roster, and Tommy really set the tone for that, too, as an unselfish, high IQ guy. I just love where our program is, I think we're going to continue to get better, and hopefully our guys will continue to develop. We now need a guy to take Tommy's place, and hopefully we have a few in the program that are ready to step up and do that.
JD: Tell us more about Tommy, what he's meant to the program for four years. We know he'll be missed, and you can't put a price on what he's done. Talk about his pro prospects and how much of a chance he has.
SP: We're really thrilled. He just finished his Masters degree too, and he's the national Defensive Player of the Year, and player of the year in our conference, you know, gets his graduate degree and finishes with a 3.5 GPA in grad school, I mean, can you say anything more? Leading rebounder in school history, leading assist guy in school history, leading floor burns, probably the best defender in school history. You can't really say what he's meant to our program because he's meant so much in so many different areas, and he's a great kid. He's right now meeting with agents, he has pro contracts already, he's just going to sift through those things and decide which country he wants to play for, and that's a great thing. He's got a lot of different options, so I'm real proud of him, and real proud of how much better he's gotten too over the course of his career.
JD: On top of that, bringing the core of this year's team back next season, how do you like the makeup of next year's team and what they can become?
SP: You know, we have eight of our top ten back, and I feel real good about that. We have a good player in every class, we redshirted three kids this year that I feel can really play and I'm excited very much about them. They'll be freshmen next year, but they've already been in the program for a year, we signed a player early that can play in any league in the country, and hopefully we'll get some more good news coming up very shortly with the national signing date coming up, so I feel real good about the returning guys if they continue to improve, and I feel real good about the guys we're adding to the program.
JD: How about the schedule? Last season, you had Maryland, UConn, a lot of challenging nonconference games early that you competed in and proved that you can play at any level. Are there any other high-profile high-majors that are on the agenda for next season?
SP: We're working hard, we're going to play VCU at VCU, and we're working hard to solidify a few more dates with some high-major programs. It hasn't been easy, though, scheduling has become one of my more difficult jobs. We're playing Northeastern, the CAA champion, you know, which is going to be a challenging game too, and then we've got a host of other teams that we've played that continue to really challenge us. Our schedule is going to be very good again when it's all said and done, but we're still working on some of the pieces to finish it off.
JD: With everyone in the New York area seemingly getting better every year, how competitive is this area in terms of basketball, and how much more do you need to keep up at what is perceived to be a lower level?
SP: Yeah, you know, there are are some really good coaches and real good programs, the job they're doing at LIU (Brooklyn) and Iona, the job Steve (Masiello) continues to do at Manhattan, Coach (Steve) Lavin at St. John's, you've got to do a great job, you've got to stay on top of your recruiting, you've got to continue to get good players and develop the players that you have in your program to keep up with those programs, so New York basketball is in great shape, it really is. St. John's continues to get better, Seton Hall, Rutgers will be in the middle of hiring a new coach too, Marist just hired a real good coach, Coach (Joe) Mihalich will do a great job at Hofstra and get Hofstra back on track, you know, Coach (Tom) Pecora at Fordham is going to continue to build that program. It's great basketball around here, it really is, with some real good coaches and real good players. You've got to continue to keep working to keep up with the Joneses.
JD: Finally, in 15 years at the Division I level, Steve, for Stony Brook to come this far this fast, how much of a reflection is it on the program in general, and also for basketball on Long Island and in the area?
SP: Well, I'll tell you, it's been great. We've come a long way in a short period of time. You've got to have a great president, President Sam Stanley is committed to athletics as, as evidenced by the new building that we're building is as good a building as anyone has in the New York area, and then Jim Fiore is a great athletic director. There are a lot of really good coaches, but I think it's your athletic director and your president that separate your jobs. Stony Brook's a great job, and it's a university that's exploding. Our enrollment is off the charts, and we're building new buildings, we're building new dorms, building a new gym, we just built a baseball stadium, our football stadium is adding new seats. It's an exciting time at our university, it really is, and our university is 55 years old, so it's a young university on so many levels. It's a bright future at the university, and you've got to have great administrators in order to make a great athletic program, and we certainly have that.