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Stony Brook reopens Arena to play Illinois in NIT

The Stony Brook men's basketball team during afternoon

The Stony Brook men's basketball team during afternoon practice. Stony Brook's basketball arena has been rehabilitated to host Illinois in an opening round of the NIT tournament. (March 16, 2010) Photo Credit: Photo by Joseph D. Sullivan

Stony Brook's players realize that playing in their first major postseason game involves stepping into a whole new realm - one flight of stairs down.

The Seawolves have spent the past two days getting acclimated to the idea of playing Illinois in the NIT Wednesday, and of playing in the Stony Brook Arena instead of upstairs at tiny Pritchard Gymnasium. Either way, it's horizon-expanding.

"We won't be all crammed up," said Muhammad El-Amin, the America East Conference player of the year.

Players got used to the background, the lighting, the floor in their first practice in the arena Monday. Luckily for them, the place is not totally foreign.

"I played here a lot when they had open gym," El-Amin said, adding that the biggest adjustment was that the surface under the court seemed harder, which he didn't think would be a problem. "I like playing here."

The arena was closed last season for major renovations that were put on hold because of the state's budget crisis. It has been used mostly for intramurals and has taken a pretty good beating. The school did emergency renovations recently because Pritchard, with 1,500 seats, is too small for the postseason.

"Everybody has done an awesome job. It looks great. By the time Wednesday rolls around, you are going to be impressed," coach Steve Pikiell said, standing courtside Monday in the 4,000-seat arena.

The floor has been sanded and painted. The scoreboard is working. New backboards and shot clocks are in place, under banks of new temporary lights. A new sound system is ready. Immediately after the last players left the court, workers began hanging massive red banners. A cleaning crew was due in later that night.

Athletic director Jim Fiore said the project cost about $75,000. For Stony Brook, the value is incalculable. The Seawolves, making their first postseason appearance since becoming a Division I program in 1999, will have the almost unheard-of opportunity to play at home. The No. 1-seeded Illini were forced out of their arena because the circus is in town. Coach Bruce Weber, whose team reached the NCAA championship game five years ago, said Illinois hadn't been planning on the NIT.

Stony Brook, on the other hand, had been dreaming of it. None of the tournament's other 15 first-round sites likely will be as packed with excitement as Stony Brook Arena. The Seawolves embrace every step forward, such as having recruited El-Amin, a 6-5 senior from Lansing, Mich., in Big Ten country.

"He could play in the Big Ten," Weber said, having noticed that El-Amin made 41 percent of his three-pointers in conference games. "If you're shooting in a gym by yourself, that's good shooting," the coach said.

El-Amin has played summer ball with Michigan State players. "I watched the Big Ten a lot this year. I watched Illinois and Ohio State," El-Amin said. "This is going to be a good moment for us."

Pikiell, a former captain at Connecticut, told his players not to waste the moment.

"We've got to go for it," he said. "I use the analogy: Don't go up there with the bat on your shoulder and hope the pitcher throws four bad pitches. Take the bat off your shoulder and swing."

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