ESPNU's cameras were in place Friday night at sold-out Pritchard Gymnasium to provide a national showcase for the first meeting this season between America East powers Stony Brook and Vermont, which came in tied atop the conference standings at 5-0. Seawolves coach Steve Pikiell acknowledged the big-game atmosphere but tried not to invest too much significance in it.
"It's Game 6 of league play," Pikiell said. "You try not to make this the Super Bowl."
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But a heated rivalry was inevitable. Pikiell built Stony Brook (13-6) into a program that won three America East regular-season titles in the previous four seasons. The Catamounts (11-8) were the primary team Stony Brook had to knock off, and nothing has changed this season.
Coach John Becker's Catamounts were voted conference favorite in the preseason coaches poll based on having five senior starters. SBU, which features returning rookie of the year Jameel Warney, placed second.
Vermont started slowly but proved its mettle in a one-point loss at Duke and arrived at Pritchard riding a seven-game winning streak. "Certainly, Vermont is strong," Pikiell said. "Not only do they have experience but they have winners. They're always going to be good. But Albany is good, too, and Hartford has a couple great players. Everyone has a chance. You only have to be good one weekend."
The weekend in question, of course, is March 8-9, when the conference tournament will take place in Albany. Both Stony Brook and Vermont were ambushed last year by the host Great Danes.
The Seawolves lost a semifinal in what amounted to a true road game in front of a roaring Albany home crowd. That allowed Vermont to host the championship game six days later for the automatic NCAA Tournament bid, and the Great Danes pulled a huge upset.
Starting in 2015, the format for the conference tournament will change. The conference's coaches voted unanimously to allow the higher seeds to host home games, and the field will be reseeded after each round to make sure the best regular-season teams have the best chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
As Stony Brook likely would have won a bid for the conference tournament in 2015-16 because of the 4,000-seat arena that will open this summer, it was in the interest of Vermont and other contenders to vote for the new format. But Pikiell is happy they did.
"Every coach was excited about it," he said. "Albany does a great job hosting, but this will be a good step for our conference. People wanted to be rewarded for having a good regular season. If you're one of the fortunate ones to get a home game, that's great. If you didn't have that kind of season, you know you have to go on the road . . . Everyone has an agenda, but it was right for the league."
The loss at Albany last year was tough to swallow for the Seawolves, who never have gone to the NCAA Tournament, but they had a chance the previous season to win the conference title at home -- and lost to the Catamounts. More fuel for a great America East rivalry.