The elephant in Stony Brook’s room, as everyone often reminds coach Steve Pikiell, is the Seawolves’ failure to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid despite all the success they have achieved the past five years – four 20-win seasons, three regular-season America East titles and two previous trips to the conference final to play for the automatic NCAA bid.
Now, Pikiell and the second-seeded Seawolves (23-9) are hoping their third trip to the America East Tournament championship game against fourth-seeded Albany (17-14) at 11:30 a.m. in Pritchard Gym will be the charmed moment for the program. It arrives with a significant bit of irony in tow.
Stony Brook gets to host the game in its 1,630-seat bandbox because No. 1 seeded Vermont, which was 15-1 in conference play, was upset by Albany in the America East semifinals played on the Great Danes’ home court at SEFCU Arena. Last year, when the Seawolves were the No. 1 seed, they were the ones who were upset by the Danes in that same situation. Only then, folks treated it as a typical Stony Brook failure to get over the hump at tournament time.
"It's tough," Pikiell said after his team secured a home title game with a semifinal victory over Hartford on Sunday. “People don’t realize you’re playing away games. Vermont had a great year. Guys get in foul trouble. It’s a one-shot deal. The tournament is so different. When you’re playing away it’s tough to do. Because you’re a No. 1, you get to wear a white uniform. It doesn’t give you any advantages."
Avoiding a road trip to Burlington, Vt., where SBU is 1-11, was a major break even though the Seawolves were the only conference team to defeat the Catamounts this season.
Equally important is the fact the Seawolves won’t be playing at a neutral site in their own backyard as they did two years ago when they hosted the America East title game. At that time, the league had a minimum-seating requirement that eliminated Pritchard.
To play the game on campus, the school had to spend upwards of $100,000 to install TV lights and refurbish the court and seating areas in Stony Brook Arena, which was in disrepair while waiting for New York State funds to become available for the $21 million renovation that opens next fall. The Seawolves had a home crowd of 4,400 fans, but they lost to Vermont on a court both teams were seeing for the first time.
It was completely unfair, but it was cited as another SBU failure at tourney time. The America East seating requirement since has been dropped, so Stony Brook's seniors, who are making their third appearance in the conference championship in four seasons, get to play in the gym where they have enjoyed so much success.
SBU’s streak of 23 straight America East conference home wins spanning three years was snapped on Feb. 8 when New Hampshire made 14 three-pointers to upset the Seawolves. But they won the last two conference home games, including a comeback against Albany in the regular-season finale.
"It means everything getting to the game,” senior guard Anthony Jackson said. “We’ve failed three times [to reach the NCAA], and to bring it back in the senior season, last go-round, it means a lot. We play our best basketball at home."
For years, whenever questioned about the quest for that first NCAA berth, Pikiell said the key in a one-bid league is having one good weekend at the end of the season. Well, this year, he gets to spend that weekend at Pritchard Gymnasium.
It’s no guarantee of success, but Pikiell said with some satisfaction, "t’s nice to play in Pritchard."