STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- Steve Pikiell is entering his seventh season as the head men's basketball coach at Stony Brook University.
But he still has an empty shelf in his office.
There are actually three shelves, on the wall to your right when you come through the door. The first two have basketballs resting on them -- one from his first win at the school and one commemorating the school's first conference regular-season championship.
"That last shelf has been empty," Pikiell said Thursday, in an interview in his office. "We're trying to get that -- that's our first NCAA tournament ball."
The Seawolves came within two points of filling that shelf nine months ago. Stony Brook, playing in its first America East championship game, led Boston University by 15 points with less than 17 minutes to play. But it couldn't hold on. BU outscored Stony Brook 8-0 over the final 3:31, and a pair of free throws with 2.4 seconds left gave the Terriers a 56-54 victory and a trip to the Big Dance.
Senior Bryan Dougher missed a desperation heave at the buzzer, and has spent the offseason thinking about what might have been. "It left a bitter taste in our mouths," Dougher said. "We learned that we have to have guys who step up when we need it the most. We didn't have anybody do that last year, and I take that responsibility on myself, to be that guy."
The truth is, Stony Brook has already come a long way since Pikiell came aboard in 2005. The school's men's basketball program only has been in Division I since 1999. The Seawolves were 4-24 in his first season at the helm, and just 20-67 in his first three years. But in 2008-09, Stony Brook finished above .500 (16-14), and in the following year came the big breakthrough -- a 22-10 record, and the America East regular-season crown.
Only problem? The Seawolves were upset by Boston University in the semifinals of the conference tournament, relegating them to the NIT.
Last season, Stony Brook was ravaged by injuries -- including losing starting forward Tommy Brenton, the America East's leading rebounder, for the entire year. But the Seawolves managed to go 15-17 overall, 8-8 in the conference, and got hot at the right time -- in March, advancing to the America East title game.
"It's all steps -- the last three years, we've taken one more step each year in that tournament," Pikiell said. "I think for us, to get there for the first time, to have that experience now, I think it will bode well if we get back in that position again. I think the guys learned a lot from it."
Pikiell has had a great mentor to learn from in his coaching career -- namely Jim Calhoun, winner of three national championships at Connecticut. Pikiell played point guard for Calhoun at UConn from 1987 to 1991. And Calhoun gave him his first coaching job, hiring him as an assistant at UConn after graduation.
"I learned a lot from him about perseverance, and toughness," Pikiell said. "My teams play hard, we play defense, and we're gonna rebound."
In fact, Stony Brook was ranked No. 9 in all of Division I in defense last season, with teams shooting just 39 percent from the field against the Seawolves. And they spent a good chunk of time in practice on Thursday working on getting back on D and stopping opponents' fast breaks.
"We're gonna be the best damn transition defense team in the country!" Pikiell shouted at one point.
"It's kind of your anchor," Pikiell said. "To me, I want to score a lot of points, but that's the bonus. But every night if we bring defense, we're gonna have a chance."
Dougher, a 6-foot-1 point guard from Scotch Plains, N.J., was the only Stony Brook player to average double figures in scoring last season (12.8 ppg). "He's been a real good player since day one I've given him the ball," Pikiell said. "But his range has improved -- he can really shoot the ball from deep."
And Dougher should have a lot more help this season. "We have a lot of weapons this year," Pikiell said. "I really believe all five of our starters are capable of scoring in double figures."
In particular, Brenton -- a 6-5 forward who averaged 7.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game two years ago -- is 100 percent healthy after dislocating his kneecap and tearing knee ligaments last September. And Ron Bracey -- another 6-5 forward, who averaged 23.3 points per game in junior college last season -- led the Seawolves in scoring in their August trip to Europe.
Stony Brook went 4-1, playing games in Ireland, England and France, and Bracey averaged 11.6 points per contest.
"Practices have been real competitive so far -- more so than my last three years here," Dougher said. "That bodes well for us, speaks to our depth."
Stony Brook, which opens its season at Indiana on Nov. 11, was picked to finish second to -- you guessed it! -- Boston University in the America East preseason coaches' poll. But Pikiell and his players have their sights set a little higher.
"When my guys come in here and they tell me how hard they work, I just point at the shelf," Pikiell said. "And I say, 'Eh, I don't know -- if you're working that hard, we should already have that shelf taken care of.'"
Four months from now, they hope to have the office decorations complete.