When Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell was speaking with some Chicago-area reporters the other day about his team and his school, it became instantly clear what this NIT game meant to the program. It was a chance to introduce Stony Brook to the country, and with it, to Long Island.
In the same way you notice things about your house when company comes, the NIT visit from Illinois last night - the biggest game in Seawolves history (and when they were the Patriots before that) - has a chance to see Stony Brook in a whole new light.
"We're right on the water. We have nice facilities," Pikiell told the Illinois writers on a conference call. "We have some guards from New York City . . . "
The Seawolves also have a legacy that maybe even their neighbors don't remember. There were the days when Rollie Massimino was here as a rookie coach, which Long Islanders remember. But when the fans crammed the quickly redone Stony Brook Arena last night, they were following Emeka Smith, who played in the 1990s, and Arthur King, who played in the 1970s, and Ted Eppenstein, who played in the 1960s.
Long Island might not remember, but there was excitement when the team moved to Division I, opened the arena, and St. John's came to play. Villanova and Utah visited, too. There were awfully lean years, too, such as the ones when Pikiell first started and had an audience that was composed mostly of his family.
No wonder that, before this week, Illinois had no idea what or where Stony Brook was. "You know about them from watching their scores on TV," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who was in the NCAA final five years ago. "We never played them in all my years as an assistant."
Pikiell sees this NIT as a fresh start, not the same in scope but similar in style to the one he remembers from his sophomore year as a player for Jim Calhoun at Connecticut when it won the title in 1988.
"Calhoun would tell you to this day what a big thing that was for his program," Pikiell said. "We won that first game at West Virginia. We played Ohio State [in the final]. The next year, we went to the NCAA. It really catapulted the UConn program."
Muhammad El-Amin, the top player for Stony Brook and player of the year in the America East, is like his school in that big-time college basketball people hadn't heard of him, either.
"I played out of position in high school," the Lansing, Mich., resident said, recalling that he played center because he was the tallest guy. His strength, though, is shooting from the perimeter.
"I didn't know about Stony Brook two years ago," El-Amin said, thinking back to his time at Lansing Community College. Fellow Michigan resident Lamar Chapman had just left Toledo for the Seawolves. "He told me they were looking for a scorer."
And Pikiell's enthusiasm caught him. "He wants to put this program on the map," El-Amin said. "I said, 'I think I can help you do it.' "
The arena was filled with people, noise, excitement and even TV cameras last night. It was one loud echo of what Pikiell had told the Illinois writers earlier in the week: "Our school has done a lot of great things the last few years . . . "