STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- The hottest college basketball program in New York caught fire -– literally –- on Wednesday.
Following a welding accident, a blaze broke out at Stony Brook University Arena, which is undergoing a $21.1 million renovation. Thankfully no one was hurt, but smoke did seep into nearby Pritchard Gymnasium, the current home of the men’s hoops team, shutting it down for a short time.
Just the latest obstacle on Stony Brook’s climb up the Division I ladder.
The Seawolves have already come a long way since making the leap to Division I in 1999. They won their first America East regular season title three years ago, and have played in the America East championship game the past two seasons -- just one win away from the NCAA Tournament.
But they fell short each time. Two years ago, they lost a heartbreaker, 56-54, at Boston University. Last year was even worse, losing at home to Vermont, 51-43, and having to watch the Catamounts cut down the nets in their own gym.
“It hurt a lot,” said senior forward Tommy Brenton. “I think that drives us a lot, the guys that were there -- to know what it feels like to lose, and not wanting that to happen again.”
This season, Stony Brook is knocking at the NCAA Tournament’s door again. The Seawolves are off to a 17-5 start –- their best since joining Division I -- and currently reside in first place in the conference, at 8-1.
Coach Steve Pikiell lost three starters from last year’s squad -- including guard Bryan Dougher, the school’s all-time leading scorer -– yet the team looks just as good, if not better.
“I was nervous coming into the year that our defense would be affected the most,” Pikiell said, “but we’ve become better defensively.”
And there wasn’t much room for improvement. Last year Stony Brook gave up just 59.1 points per game -- ranked No. 13 in the country. This season, the Seawolves are allowing just 58.3 points per contest. And they’re holding opponents to 37.1 percent shooting from the field. Only seven teams are better in Division I, out of 345.
Pikiell has preached defense first since he took over at Stony Brook in 2005. It’s a philosophy he picked up from Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who he played for, and coached under, at UConn.
“Defense is the one thing you can count on, home or away,” Pikiell said. “Offense is so fickle -- some days you make shots, some days you don’t.”
His players continue to buy in. And they’re an unselfish group, too. Eight different players have led Stony Brook in scoring in a game this season. The Seawolves’ top three scorers all average between 11 and 12 points per game –- junior guard Dave Coley (11.8 ppg), freshman forward Jameel Warney (11.7 ppg), and junior guard Anthony Jackson (11.4 ppg).
Brenton, a leading candidate for America East Player of the Year, averages just 8.5 points per game –- but adds 8.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists.
“Points don’t really matter to him -- he’d rather have more assists than points,” said Pikiell. “I don’t have to talk about being unselfish when the guy who is the best player in the program is the most unselfish guy.”
Warney, a 6-foot-8, 255-pound wide body from Plainfield, N.J., also averages 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He was recruited by the likes of Iowa, Penn State and Temple, but chose Stony Brook instead.
“He’s the one kid in my time doing this -- and I’ve been recruiting now for 20 years -- that didn’t pick the highest level,” Pikiell said. “He picked the right place for him.”
“It was just the campus, and the community around it, they had a good feeling,” Warney said. “Plus the team is really good.”
Indeed they are. Stony Brook has won its past four games, and nine of its past 10. The Seawolves own the most road wins in the country, with 10. That’s a big reason why their RPI rating is so high (80), and why they’re currently projected as a No. 14 seed in the Big Dance in the latest edition of Bracketology, as opposed to a No. 15 or No. 16.
But first they need to seal the deal and finally win the America East tournament.
For Brenton, this is his last chance.
“It’s a lot of added pressure, but I think it provides a lot of focus at the same time,” Brenton said. “I think I’ve been more focused this year than any year in the past.”
If the team needed any extra motivation, they got some from the school’s baseball team, which stunned the sports world by upsetting the likes of Miami and LSU last spring and advancing to the College World Series.
“It definitely inspired us,” said Brenton. “It made us jealous, envious, everything. Just seeing them on TV, the success they had was unbelievable.”
Pikiell attended the College World Series and brought back T-shirts for his players, which he says they continue to wear. And he used a baseball analogy to sum up the state of his program.
“You have to hit three home runs,” said Pikiell, referring to nonconference play, the conference season, and the conference tournament. “We’ve been able to hit two home runs and a double. We just haven’t been able to hit that third homer.”
He is far from discouraged, though. “I have an easy philosophy,” Pikiell said. “When we’re good enough to hit three home runs, we will.”
Two down, one to go again this year.