It's down to crunch time in the America East season, and 9-2 Stony Brook holds a half-game lead over 9-3 Vermont with five games remaining for the Seawolves. Judging by the way they handled third-place Maine in an 83-64 rout Wednesday night at Pritchard Gymnasium, coach Steve Pikiell's team has all the ingredients any champion needs.
Early in the season, it seemed the Wolves were highly dependent on the scoring of go-to guys Muhammed El-Amin and Bryan Dougher. They still are the two leading scorers, but time and again down the stretch, different teammates have shown the ability to step up on the offensive end. Having a variety of scoring options is what separates the top teams from the rest in college basketball today.
The Black Bears were geared to contain El-Amin and Dougher and succeeded in holding them to a total of 10 first-half points, but they found themselves trailing the Seawolves 42-19 because Chris Martin drove into the paint to score 19 of his 23 points before intermission. That loosened the defense, and El-Amin simply extended his shooting range in the second half to find the hot hand for 22 of his 24 points.
Dallis Joyner played efficiently inside to score 14 on 5-of-6 shooting, and Dougher netted 10 while taking only eight shots. Fifth starter Tommy Brenton, who leads the conference in rebounding in all games with a 9.2 average and is second in steals with 1.78, handles the other details that make a winner. You know, defense and passing. Joyner is solid in those departments, as well.
So, on a night when it all comes together the way it did against the Black Bears. Pikiell has the luxury of saying, "We always score enough points to win. It's our defense that dictates the rest of it."
No doubt, he's right. But believe me when I tell you how many coaches would like to have an offense they don't have to worry about. Their performance against Maine moved Stony Brook to first in America East play in scoring with 69.7 points a game, slightly ahead of second-place Vermont at 69.2. Although Dougher leads the conference in three-point percentage at .515, the Wolves don't have a single player in the top 10 in overall field goal percentage. It doesn't matter because they are second in rebounding and third in steals, which translates to extra possessions.
When they throw in the kind of aggressive defense they showed Maine, the Wolves are mighty tough to beat. Certainly, they didn't show a trace of trepidation in a big game against one of the two America East teams that holds a victory over them this season.
"Well, we're in a new place," Pikiell admitted. "We haven't been there (contending for postseason play), but these guys come to play. When we're focused on our defense…we were ready to play. I was pleased with that, but we go one game at a time. We don't really talk about any of the other nonsense.
"We played a full game today. I thought that was important. Up in Vermont, a tough place to play, we had a great second half. We've played a couple halves, but tonight, we kind of jumped on them and stayed on top of them. That's something we haven't done. We usually let teams get back into it a little bit, but we didn't do that today."
With Dougher and El-Amin, Stony Brook is far and away the best three-point shooting team in America East with a .424 percent compared to second-place Boston University at .360. But that's why you have to love Martin's game.
"Bryan Dougher is the leading three-point shooter in the league, so, every time he comes into a game, he's a marked guy," Pikiell said. "So, is Mo. I think guys are taking advantage now. There's a lot of lanes, a lot of opportunities, and all these guys can really score. That's the sign of a good team. We don't count on those two. If those two guys aren't scoring, someone else is. Chris really stepped up and had a big night scoring-wise."
The vast majority of players in college basketball would be much better if they concentrated on going to the basket and developing moves in the lane and a mid-range jumper. That's what Martin does, and he has a strong body that gives him the power to create room for himself inside. When the bombs aren't falling in, Martin can go inside and get you two.
The conference race is far from over. The Seawolves have two home games left against Binghamton on Saturday night and against Vermont on Feb. 24 and three road games against UMBC, Albany and New Hampshire. If they keep spreading it around the same way and don't hesitate to feed the hot hand, they can go a long ways.
The conference champion is guaranteed a bid to the NIT if it doesn't win the league tournament and an NCAA bid, and the way things are going, Stony Brook is proving it is plenty good enough to reach the postseason.