DES MOINES, Iowa — Jameel Warney wore a nylon necklace and a sheepish grin following his stunning 43-point performance in Stony Brook’s America East Tournament victory to capture the school’s first NCAA bid. He sounded almost embarrassed when he said coach Steve Pikiell told him he had to take at least 20 shots against Vermont, adding “I didn’t know if I could do it,” then thanking his teammates twice for getting him the ball.
Warney always had the ability to put up prolific scoring numbers, but it goes against his unselfish nature because he grew up focusing on passing and rebounding first. So it wasn’t surprising that his career highs for points, shots (22) and field goals (18) were accomplished in superbly economical fashion.
When Pikiell announced Warney’s signing four years ago, he predicted the 6-8, 265-pound power forward would become the greatest player in Stony Brook history, but Warney has exceeded even those expectations. He’s not only three-time America East Player of the Year but also one of five national finalists for the Karl Malone Award as power forward of the year.
“To his credit, he’s really figured out how to keep those qualities of being unselfish and a great passer and has added to it,” Pikiell said. “We told him, ‘Jameel, you can really score,’ and he needs to do that at times. Last year, he broke out of just trying to be a piece of the puzzle and realized that we run things through him and we need him to score at times. He’s just matured in every area.”
The 13th-seeded Seawolves (26-6) will need all Warney can give them in their first-round East Regional matchup against fourth-seeded Kentucky (26-8) Thursday night. He basked briefly in the national spotlight his epic performance attracted to Stony Brook but quickly moved past it to the challenge he faces against the Wildcats’ roster of five-star recruits.
“It was a game that was needed to get to here,” Warney said. “I stopped worrying about it since [Sunday] when we got Kentucky. We have to try to win that game. It’s a new challenge for us to try to finish this season out.”
Coming from a mid-major like Stony Brook, the knee-jerk reaction might be to assume Warney will be overmatched by a major step up in competition level to face a front line that includes 6-8 Alex Poythress and 6-9 Marcus Lee, with 6-11 potential freshman NBA lottery pick Skal Labissiere coming off the bench. That would be a mistake.
Warney is comfortable with any level of competition. As a junior at Roselle (N.J.) Catholic, he had 20 points and 11 rebounds in a playoff game against St. Patrick’s, which featured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dakari Johnson. Both went to Kentucky the next season, and Kidd-Gilchrist was the overall No. 2 NBA pick in 2012 while Johnson later became a second-round pick.
Current Kentucky freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe, another potential first-round pick, began playing for Roselle Catholic the season after Warney graduated. They aren’t close, but they have played in summer pickup games at the school.
“I talk to him sometimes a little bit,” Warney said. “We have open gyms there all the time. I also played against him when he was a freshman [at St. Benedict’s in New Jersey]. He’s a great player, and obviously, he took his talent to another level. I’m happy for him. It’s great exposure for the school.”
After the first-round matchup was announced, Warney received a text from Dave Goff, his former coach at Roselle Catholic. “He said, ‘The NCAA is going to make me pick a side. Maybe I’ll wear a Stony Brook shirt and Kentucky blue sweatpants,’ ” Warney said with a laugh.
While Kentucky forwards Lee and Poythress have heft and experience, the matchup against Labissiere might be most compelling to fans and NBA scouts. It’s comparable to earlier this season when Stony Brook lost in overtime at Vanderbilt, which has three 7-footers, including projected first-round pick Damian Jones. Warney had 22 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots in that game.
“I think the Vanderbilt game prepared us for this,” Warney said. “They’re SEC, and Damian Jones is a lottery-pick big. Labissiere also is a lottery pick. We’ll see how he plays. In some games, he gets complacent, and there are games where he gets aggressive. He’s a special talent.”
So is Warney, who might be viewed as undersized for an NBA power forward, but who plays much bigger and has a high basketball IQ. “He does things you can’t teach as far as the footwork, the hands, the court awareness, the ability to pass, and he’s a little more explosive than people give him credit for being because he has such a good touch and finesse game,” Stony Brook assistant coach Bryan Dougher said. “His legs are strong. He squats like 500 pounds.
“He feels where the defender is and can decide if he wants to survey a little bit or go right up. When he wants to take over, he can take over a game. He’s plenty tough enough to bang with anybody.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari pointed to the “big kid who had 43” while discussing Stony Brook, so Warney can count on getting the Wildcats’ full attention.
To have any chance at an upset, the Seawolves need everything Warney possibly can give.
As Pikiell joked after the Vermont win, “I think I’ve got to tell him to get 40 [shots up] next time.”
Karl Malone Award finalist — Warney is up for the award to the nation’s top power forward along with North Carolina’s Brice Johnson, Iowa States’ Georges Niang, Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff and Kansas’ Perry Ellis.
America East honors — Three-time Player of the Year, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, 2016 AEC Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
Class by himself — Since 1996-97, only Warney has recorded at least 2,000 points, 1,200 rebounds, 250 blocks, 200 assists and 100 steals.
No threes — Since the introduction of the three-point line in 1986-87, Warney is just the second player to score 2,000 points without attempting a three. The other, Washington’s Christian Welp, only played one season with the three-point line.
Current career stats — 2,109 points, 1,260 rebounds, 220 assists, 274 blocks, 104 steals.
Current season NCAA rank — 19.8 points (37th), 632 total points (27), 10.7 rebounds (15), 4.41 offensive rebounds (4), 63.7 FG% (9), 262 total FGs made (3), 3.03 blocked shots per game (5), 20 double-doubles (8).
The Best of Jameel
Career game highs:
Points: 43, vs. Vermont (3/12/16)
Rebounds: 23, vs. UMBC (3/2/16)
Assists: 8, vs. UMBC (1/14/15)
Blocks: 9, vs. Princeton (12/5/15)
FGs: 18, vs. Vermont (3/12/16)
FGAs: 22, twice, last vs. Vermont (3/12/16)
FTs: 11, vs. UMBC (3/2/16)
FTAs: 21, vs. UMBC (3/2/16)
Minutes: 50, at Detroit (11/23/14)