If you didn't know better, you'd think Stony Brook basketball coach Steve Pikiell was sports information director at Vermont. Pikiell can cite chapter and verse on an impressive array of Catamounts statistics.
“They’ve won games in our league by an average of 24 points a game,” Pikiell said, embellishing slightly on the actual 22-point margin in conference games that is tops in the NCAA. “They’re the best defensive team and the best offensive team…They’ve got big guys who can play, guards who can play. There’s not one guy you can key on. They have nine guys that have played a lot of minutes and won a lot of games.”
Well, it’s all true. Stony Brook (20-8, 12-2 America East) might have won three of the past four America East regular-season titles, but Vermont (19-8, 13-1) has earned its status as a strong favorite in an ESPN3-televised game that likely will decide the conference title Thursday night at Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington, Vt.
If you look at statistics for conference games only to compare apples to apples, the Catamounts are No. 1 in 14 of 17 categories. The Seawolves are No. 1 in two – rebounds per game and offensive rebounds per game – and No. 2 in eight other categories.
Of course, they did hand the Catamounts the No. 1 in their conference loss column, but after building a 17-point lead with 16:32 left to play, Stony Brook barely hung on for a 67-64 win on Jan. 24. The Seawolves must beat Vermont and then win their home finale against Albany on Sunday to capture a share of the league title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament by virtue of a head-to-head sweep of the Catamounts.
If Vermont wins, it gets the No. 1 seed even if it loses its finale at Binghamton, which is highly unlikely. The top seed is critical because the highest-seeded team in the March 15 AE final hosts the game.
Pikiell knows he’s headed to the proverbial lion’s den. Vermont will be honoring its all-senior starting five of Brian Voelkel, Sandro Carissimo, Candon Rusin, Clancy Rugg and Luke Apfeld plus reserve Josh Elbaum. The Cats’ starting five was held to 18 total points by the Seawolves, but Hector Harold (17), Ethan O’Day (16) and Kurt Steidl (13) came off the bench at SBU to give them fits.
One thing Pikiell’s team has going for it is good health. Post man Jameel Warney has shown he can overcome the effects of a thumb injury, and point guard Carson Puriefoy III had a career-high 24 points in Sunday’s win at Maine, demonstrating he’s over his groin injury.
Anticipating the scene Thursday night, Pikiell said, “It’s their Senior Night; the place will be packed; they’re playing for a league championship and we’re playing for a league championship. I’m just glad we’re playing games in February that are meaningful.
“They’ve got the most seniors in the country, one of the oldest teams. They’re well-coached. It’s going to be a war. I’m excited and I think our guys are, but we have a lot of respect for their program. Those seniors have done nothing but win at Vermont, especially at home…If we don’t play great at both ends of the floor, we’ll be in trouble.”
If the Seawolves don’t win, the punishment just might be a return trip to Burlington in a couple weeks.