Steve Pikiell has turned it around at Stony Brook
The Seawolves won the America East Conference regular-season title for the second time in three years and acquitted themselves well in the NIT, losing by two points to Seton Hall, a Big East team that entered the game with 20 victories.
Pikiell thought back to his first year at Stony Brook, in the 2005-06 season, when his team went 4-20 and lost by 30 points to UMBC in the conference tournament's play-in game.
"We were walking out after the game and [an observer] thought we were maybe in the conversation for worst team in the history of the league,'' he said. "We were in that conversation. We weren't close to the number eight team; we just lost by 30. I didn't realize how far we were from the eighth-place team.''
It took until January for Pikiell to earn his first victory that season. "We were struggling having people come to games, we were struggling on the recruiting trail,'' he said. "It took me four years to get my neighbors to come to games. Now they don't miss games. It's been an education -- one at a time.''
Athletic director Jim Fiore extended Pikiell's contract after that first season. "He inherited arguably the worst basketball team in the country,'' Fiore said. "I believed in him. He earned my trust. You judge somebody in their most difficult times.''
The change started to take shape with the recruiting class of Bryan Dougher, Dallis Joyner and Tommy Brenton. "This class changed the culture,'' Pikiell said. "Basketball became important; they were all from winning programs. They all wanted to be here. They had other choices and they said yes to us.
"Past players that we had here thought they belonged at other places. They thought they belonged at St. John's, yet St. John's didn't recruit them. Thought they belonged at Villanova, but Villanova didn't recruit them. They thought they were doing us a favor. I know that was the mentality when we first came here.
"We had to get overachievers. Bryan Dougher, overachiever. Dallis Joyner, overachiever. Tommy Brenton, overachiever. Danny Carter, overachiever. We had to get a group of those kids. We have all the intangibles. Good chemistry, great locker room. Kids that are unselfish. We had nine guys lead us in scoring this year. Nine, on a roster that plays 11. They are not caught up in individual stats.''
Pikiell was 20-67 in his first three years, 75-51 in the last four. He has two 22-win seasons and two NIT appearances in the last three years. And he's come up just short of an NCAA appearance the last two years with a two-point loss to Boston University last season and Saturday's 51-43 loss to Vermont.
"I'm a worker and an obstacle guy and that's all I've had to do since I've been here,'' he said. "I'm a blue-collar person -- nine brothers and sisters, paper route, nothing's been easy. I had a positive approach to everything. I knew it would get better. Obviously, it can't go in the other direction. Honestly, I really believed in myself and I believed in my staff. I believe in the university.''
Pikiell suspects he lost some recruits over the years because of delays in the renovation of Stony Brook Arena, though the team has made Pritchard Gymnasium a huge home-court advantage.
"Kids don't come out and tell you why,'' Pikiell said. "I've lost a kid here because at one school, they had a bathroom in their dorm room. Kids are 17 years old, they make decisions, the least of which are usually common-sense reasons. They make a decision on they had a great weekend, it was a great party. There's a bathroom in their room.
"We had a kid up from Texas. His high school gym seats 5,000. I know when he came in and looked at Pritchard, he wasn't that excited. The asset is the school and the people here.''
There also is the ever- present identity issue. "People don't know enough about the school until they come out here,'' he said. "People think Stony Brook is a Stonehill, a small private school with a brook running through it. That's what people think. Stonehill, Slippery Rock, Stony Brook.
"Once they come here, they see this is a major pubic university with 25,000 students. A great campus, near the water, close to the train, with great education and great people. Then they look at you a little differently.''