It's not as if losing ever is part of the plan for Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell. But after winning 10 straight games to clinch the America East regular-season basketball title, a 22-point road loss to a New Hampshire team with a 12-16 record was just the bucket of cold water in the face the Seawolves needed before the conference tournament opens Saturday at the University of Hartford.
A letdown after the emotional clinching victory over perennial power Vermont might have been expected, but the magnitude of the blowout at UNH on Sunday wasn't.
"I thought it was awesome for us, to be honest," Pikiell said Thursday. "They needed that. Not that I wanted it to happen, but we've won a lot of games in a row. As young as we are, you lose a little sight of who you really are. We play defense and we rebound.
"We've been winning and getting a lot of hugs. That's not who we are. We're a blue-collar, unselfish team that plays defense and rebounds, and we didn't do it that night and that's what happens. The good part is you know, if you play like that again, the season will be over in a hurry. I think it was good for us."
As the No. 1 seed, Stony Brook (21-8, 13-3) faces No. 8 Albany (7-24, 2-14) in the first round at noon at Hartford's Chase Arena. Considering the Great Danes' poor conference mark, the tendency would be to take them lightly, but that would be a terrible mistake for the Seawolves, who won two close games against Albany, the last on a buzzer-beating jumper by Muhammad El-Amin.
Albany is led by Brentwood's Tim Ambrose, a junior guard who leads the Great Danes in scoring (12.6), rebounding (5.2) and assists (2.8), and senior forward Will Harris, a transfer from Virginia who also averages 12.6 points.
If the Seawolves get past Albany, they will face the winner of the Boston University-Hartford game in the semifinals at 5 p.m. Sunday. Win that one, and Stony Brook qualifies to host the nationally televised championship game on Saturday, March 13.
By winning the regular-season title, the Seawolves guaranteed themselves an NIT bid if they don't win the conference tournament, but they would like the NCAA bid that goes to the tourney champion.
"Tournaments are so different than the regular season," Pikiell said. "You've got 40 minutes, and if you don't play good, you go home. It's a different dynamic. There's no second chances here. You've got to play good basketball."
There's a lot of pressure on a team that is new to the favorite's role, but Pikiell said it felt as if they played "with a gun to their head" during that 10-game winning streak, and his team handled it well.
"Matter of fact, I think pressure is on a lot of these other teams because we've already got a postseason bid," Pikiell said. "Our guys are excited. We've been focused on ourselves and certain things we have to do . . . We've had a great week of practice."