Stony Brook was taking a big step up last season with its move from the America East to the Coastal Athletic Association. Coach Geno Ford had a plan to elevate his team’s performance with a higher level of guard play. He recruited a pair of experienced transfers, Aaron Clarke and Dean Noll, to become the Seawolves' starting back court.
If the two could form a bond on the court, it would give Stony Brook the best chance to win in its new conference.
Clarke and Noll did form a bond last season, but it wasn’t on the court. The two shared a lament from the sideline that injuries had left them helpless to contribute and the Seawolves averaged just 63.1 points as they finished 11-22 including 6-12 in conference play.
It’s a year late, but the pair arrive for this season in good health and with an entire summer and preseason of having played together. And while those outside the program may not see Stony Brook’s potential — it was picked ninth of 14 in a preseason coaches poll — there is a distinct optimism within.
“No one has seen us together so that’s no surprise,” Clarke said of the pick. “But we know what we have together. I’m more of a traditional score-first point guard who can involve others. He is active, makes cuts and can drive or shoot it. . . . And it’s the last season for both of us and we want to go out winners.”
“We trust each other,” Noll said. “We know each of us can make plays.”
In his last full season, at Sacred Heart, Clarke averaged 16 points and 4.1 assists. Noll was a second-team all-Ivy selection at Cornell two years ago after averaging 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
“These two guys are excellent college guards and they've played 100 games so they’ve got a lot to give and we’re going to give them a lot of freedom,” Ford said. “They’re not selfish guys and while they might take a lot of our shots, they will set up everyone else.”
It was a backdoor cut last September that did Noll in. He made the play and landed only to have his knee buckle. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Clarke’s situation was more complicated. He had back discomfort that was initially thought to be a herniated disc. Physical therapy and core work helped him get on the floor for three games in December, when he averaged 10 points in 24 minutes, but the back issues returned. In late February further testing revealed he had an autoimmune disease, ankylosing spondylitis, that required anti-inflammatory injections every two weeks.
“Finding out wasn’t so much shocking, but more of a relief to me,” Clarke said. “I finally understood what was going on and had a way to treat it. . . . I’d put myself at 90-95% of where I should be now.”
Stony Brook was going to play a fast brand of basketball last season, but ended up more of a plodding team due to those injuries as well as a couple others. As Ford said “there were games where we only had eight guys and looked like a rec team.”
The return of grad student Tyler Stephenson-Moore and sophomore Toby Onyekonwu — who logged major minutes at the guard positions — means that there is backcourt depth and the ability to use a three-guard look to speed the pace of the game.
“Last season was super frustrating,” Noll said. “But we saw Toby improve so much. We’re going to have guys who make plays.”
“You couldn’t play enough defense to win scoring 63 points a game, but this year if going to be different,” Ford said. “We can really score. We are unselfish. And we've got three guys on the perimeter — Dean, Aaron and Tyler — that will all average double figures. And not a one of them cares how many shots they get. They just want the team to play well.
“Not every coach can say that have that and its going to make this season a lot of fun.”