It’s not that Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell doesn’t enjoy having more offensive weapons at his disposal than past editions of the Seawolves have had. But when SBU suffered a 73-69 shootout loss to New Hampshire recently, breaking a 23-game home winning streak in America East play over three years, Pikiell didn’t like the team he saw in the mirror.
The Seawolves (19-8, 11-2 America East) had lost to an inferior team because they allowed the Wildcats (6-20, 4-9) to hit 14 of 30 three-point attempts, a 46.7 percentage that wiped out Stony Brook’s advantage in overall shooting and rebounding. Pikiell benched Jameel Warney, his best player, and freshman forward Ahmad Walker the next game at UMass-Lowell, and that pair chose to come off the bench at home Wednesday against UMBC.
Both of those games were Stony Brook wins, prompting Pikiell to say, “I’m very excited about how we’ve defended the last two games. We’re getting back to Stony Brook basketball.”
Pikiell acknowledged he wanted more from Warney, whom he considers the best player in the league, and he has gotten results in that area. But he also wanted more focus from his team on defense and rebounding, which have served as the pillars of the Seawolves’ identity under Pikiell, who became the all-time winningest coach in SBU history (139-134) with the win over UMBC.
Now, Pikiell is one win away from his fourth 20-win season in five years as the Seawolves head to Maine (5-20, 3-10) for a Sunday afternoon contest. With only three regular-season games remaining before the America East tournament March 8-9 at Albany, it was imperative for the coach to get his players focused on the key ingredients to a winning formula.
“After the loss to New Hampshire, every practice has been about team defense and guarding the three-point line,” Warney said after the UMBC win. “We’re clicking on defense.”
Pikiell said the New Hampshire loss actually has been a good thing for the Seawolves because it forced them to reconsider where they were headed. “I like where the team is right now,” Pikiell said. “We’re headed to an area where we can count on our defense. We were winning with offense, and that’s not us.”
Even on offense, Pikiell wants his team to play a smart, ball-control style. He knows the three-point ability of outside shooters Anthony Jackson and Scott King is important to keep defenses honest, but he said, “I hate us taking threes. I like the foul line. We want to get the ball inside and attack zones.”
Of course, that’s a good way to make sure the ball gets into Warney’s hands no matter how opposing defenses collapse on him. It’s okay if he gets fouled and gets to the line. Pikiell doesn’t want to see his team settling for deep threes. He wants a team that is aggressive on offense about going to the basket and aggressive at the other end defending it.
The Seawolves still control their destiny in the America East. Vermont (18-9, 12-1) holds first place going into a Sunday home game against Hartford. As long as SBU beats Maine, it can gain the No. 1 conference tournament seed with a win at Vermont, which would give it a season sweep of the Catamounts, and a win in the season finale at home against Albany.
Those battles down the stretch should test how well the Seawolves’ defense is holding up approaching tournament time.