Win the Big East regular-season title, and you’re guaranteed a bid to the NCAA tournament. Win the America East regular-season title, on the other hand, and all you’re guaranteed is the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and an NIT berth.
Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell can verify that, as he has experienced both scenarios. As a player under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun at UConn, Pikiell and the Huskies earned a trip to the Big Dance after taking the Big East regular-season crown.
But despite winning the America East regular-season championship in three of the last four years, Pikiell and the Seawolves (23-6, 14-2 America East) still find themselves seeking the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth. They’ve lost in the conference finals in back-to-back seasons — as the No. 1 seed last year and as the No. 5 in 2011 — and fell in the semifinals in 2010.
But even though his team has yet to achieve its annual preseason goal of reaching the NCAA tournament, Pikiell said there’s no “monkey” on his team’s back.
“When we’re good enough to win the regular season and then the [America East] tournament,” he said, “we’ll be good enough to go the NCAA tournament.”
And this year’s team has the qualities to be good enough to do so.
The 2011-12 Seawolves ranked first in the America East in scoring defense, but the offense lagged behind at No. 4 in points per game. This year, though, Stony Brook tops the charts in both categories, and Pikiell can rely more on his offense.
“The great part about this year’s team is that we can win the game on the offensive end of the floor,” Pikiell said. “It’s a huge difference.”
Perhaps no game on Stony Brook’s schedule demonstrates that point more than the Seawolves’ 75-70 win over Albany on Sunday. With the Great Danes finding the holes in Stony Brook’s defense and shooting 56.5 percent from the floor, Stony Brook converted 51.1 percent of its field goals and sank 22-of-29 free throws to preserve its winning streak, which currently stands at six.
In that game, just two players — freshmen guard Carson Puriefoy (17) and freshman forward Jameel Warney (10) — cracked double-figures in scoring. Puriefoy ranks sixth on the team in points per game, and even someone like senior guard Leonard Hayes, who averages just 2.1 points per game, has the potential to occasionally play a key role on offense, as he did in his 11-point performance against Binghamton on Jan. 9.
Opposing coaches have taken notice of Stony Brook’s depth.
“I watched their game against Albany, and with three minutes to go, they were in a one-point game and they didn’t have a starter on the floor,” Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey said. “My point being, their depth is pretty impressive. They can come at you with a lot of guys, and they have a lot of different weapons.”
Sometimes a top seed overlooks a first-round matchup with an inferior squad. Every NCAA tournament, it seems, a No. 1 seed finds itself in a tight game with a No. 16 seed in the first half. America East folks proudly remember Albany’s 2006 tilt with UConn and, to a lesser extent, Boston University’s first half against Kansas in 2011.
Pikiell said he and his team will not take anything for granted, despite facing a quarterfinal matchup with Binghamton, a team it beat by an average of 25.5 points in two games this year.
“We have a game against Binghamton, that’s the only thing we’re guaranteed,” he said. “That’s the game we’re focused on, 100 percent.”
But if the Seawolves guarantee themselves another game with a win over the Bearcats, they could potentially play the hosting Great Danes in the semifinals. It’s one of the tournament’s flaws, but Pikiell said he pays it no mind.
“We beat Binghamton and hopefully we’re in that position,” Pikiell said. “I just want to win the first game, and then we play the second one. It doesn’t matter who you play, and it doesn’t matter where you play. If you’re good enough to win the game, you win it.”
“Someone has to play the host school,” he added.
If the Seawolves finally cut down the nets, Pikiell will experience his first NCAA tournament from the helm of a program. But he played in two at UConn and coached in three more as an assistant — once with the Huskies, but also with Central Connecticut State and George Washington, his last stop before Stony Brook. So in regard to reaching the tournament, he cares more about his players, especially his seniors.
“Most importantly for our players, our seniors have won three league titles in four years and we never won one prior to that,” he said. “It would be awesome.”
“And it would be awesome for our students and our university,” Pikiell added.
But nothing’s guaranteed. That’s the nature — and the beauty or the flaw, depending on who’s talking — of mid-major college basketball.
Nonetheless, even if Binghamton, Albany or another team upsets the Seawolves, Pikiell is confident the future at Stony Brook shines bright.
“We feel real good about our program. We compete for league titles every year,” he said. “Everyone starts off the year, all nine teams, on trying to get to the NCAA tournament, so everyone has that goal. We’d love to get there too, but we’ve built a program here that’s going to be good for a long time … So we’re excited about that.”