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Traveling with the Stony Brook Seawolves

Newsday goes behind the scenes on the Stony Brook men’s basketball team’s road trip to face No. 2 Michigan State

Newsday takes you behind the scenes with the Stony Brook men's basketball team during their road trip to play the Michigan State Spartans in mid-November. (Credit: Newsday Staff; Big Ten Network)

In an effort to raise Stony Brook’s basketball profile, second-year coach Jeff Boals put together one of the toughest early season schedules in team history. The first two games were hard-fought losses to Maryland and Connecticut, both former national champions. Stony Brook agreed to let a Newsday reporter and photographer tag along as the Seawolves traveled from their third game, at Ball State, to play Michigan State, then ranked second in the nation. Here’s a look behind the scenes:

FRIDAY, NOV. 17

Muncie, Indiana — 9:17 p.m.

The echo of the final buzzer reverberated loudly through the cavernous gymnasium on the campus of Ball State University, signalling the end to a disappointing road loss for the Stony Brook basketball team.

The Seawolves were clearly the better team for the first half, but their shots stopped falling in the second half and they couldn’t recapture their offensive flow. The result was an 87-76 loss, dropping them to 0-3 on the season.

As the Stony Brook players one-by-one quietly entered the visiting team’s locker room, Boals, stood outside the door and spoke in plain terms about what had gone wrong on the court.

“We talked about how the team that had the most intensity, energy and the most heart was going to win,” he says. And clearly on this night that wasn’t the players from Stony Brook. Added Boals, “no one stepped up.”

On the short bus ride back to the hotel, not one audible word could be heard.

SATURDAY, NOV. 18

Muncie, Indiana — 8:48 a.m.

The team reconvenes in a first-floor hotel conference room for breakfast (scrambled eggs, french toast and hash browns) and a tape session.

Assistant coach Geno Ford reviews the previous night’s game, showing video of a handful of broken-down plays on a projector screen. Then Boals says it’s time to move on to Michigan State — one of the biggest games of these players’ lives.

“Unbelievable opportunity,” he says. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere, great environment. I want you to go up there and embrace the environment, embrace the physicality, and more importantly, embrace the opportunity.

“Not too many times you get a chance to go into a top-five team’s place.”

Boals tells the players that three seasons ago, Michigan State lost to a school like Stony Brook — Texas Southern — and last season the Spartans lost to Northeastern “who we beat.”

“The mindset,” he says, “has to be we have to play a near perfect game.”

Now it’s assistant coach Bryan Weber’s turn.

He was Stony Brook’s advance scout for this game — the three assistant coaches on staff rotate this responsibility each game.

Weber spent hours watching Michigan State’s games, poring over statistics and logging every play they run and each player’s tendencies. Here, with the help of a powerpoint, he gives the players their first taste of the task ahead of them.

Slides of each Michigan State player show their face and break down their strengths and weaknesses.

“VERY VERY VERY left hand dominant,” reads one player’s report.

“Pump fakes half the time. STAY DOWN!!!” reads another’s.

After going through each player, the Seawolves watch a few of Michigan State’s team tendencies on screen, with Weber playing the role of the color commentator.

“Every possession, they’re running, man,” he says.

Boals closes the nearly hour-long meeting by saying, “It’s a mindset. Embrace the opportunity.”

The team boards a coach bus and embarks on a 211-mile jaunt to East Lansing, Michigan.

Interstate 69 — 10:11 a.m.

Boals sits in the first row with his 11-year-old son, Chase, who was given a choice to go on this trip with Dad or go with Mom to his sister Katie’s high school state championship swim meet in Ithaca. He chose Dad’s trip.

Aside from spending a few minutes handing out brown paper bags filled with an assortment of his mother’s homemade cookies, the coach spends most of the ride watching tape.

(For the record, the cookies tasted incredible.)

The rest of the coaching staff and support staffers — such as the director of basketball operations, athletic trainer, team manager, video technician and media relations representative — sit in the rows immediately behind Boals.

The team’s 14 players fill up the middle to back rows, with room for most of them to get their own row. Of course, that makes the most sense, given that eight of the 14 players are at least 6-5. Most of them spend the trip with headsets on, watching videos or sleeping.

“I actually prefer bus rides,” senior Tyrell Sturdivant says. “It’s a smooth ride, you get to spread out and you don’t have to go through security and deal with all the stuff with that.”

The most noise on the three-hour, 24-minute ride comes from the bouts of pouring rain, accompanied at times by surprising rumbles of thunder.

East Lansing, Michigan — 1:34 p.m.

The bus arrives at Michigan State and drops everyone off at the Breslin Student Events Center, the basketball team’s home arena.

The 15,000-seat arena and practice facility recently completed a $50-million upgrade funded in part by MSU alums Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors. A few Stony Brook players had their iPhones out snapping pictures as they walked through the facility, which rivaled that of an NBA team’s.

Hallway walls resemble a Michigan State basketball Hall of Fame. There are images and quotes from past players and moments and a year-by-year engraved listing of every senior player in the program’s history.

“I’ve watched college basketball all my life and I’ve seen Michigan State documentaries,” sophomore Michael Almonacy says. “Now seeing it in person, it’s pretty amazing.”

Players also walk by Michigan State’s players kitchen, study room and lounge. The room even has a sponsor — behind the stainless steel kitchen appliances was a sign that says in big, bold letters: “FUELED BY MUSCLE MILK.” The two refrigerators are stocked with everything from water to yogurt to packages of fruit and, yes, lots of Muscle Milk.

Once the Stony Brook players reached the basketball court, it was time for a quick lunch — submarine sandwiches from Jimmy Johns — followed by a 78-minute practice in which coaches spent most of their time going over how to defend Michigan State’s offensive set plays.

They then board the same bus, ride across town and check into their hotel. By now it’s been nearly eight hours since they met for breakfast and traveled here. They were given three hours to themselves, which most players say they planned to spend sleeping.

7:28 p.m.

Players gather again in one of the hotel’s conference rooms for a catered buffet dinner of chicken, rice, mixed vegetables and salad.

Then, after about 20 minutes of eating — players at two tables and coaches at another — everyone pulls their chairs to the center of the room and listen as Boals addresses the team one more time followed by watching more tape of Michigan State.

It hasn’t even been 24 hours since the loss to Ball State. “The best thing about basketball is you play right away,” Boals says. “If you guys have the same taste in your mouth as I do, you’re ready to go.” He also tells them the Michigan State game, played in front of a raucous crowd on national television, “will test their togetherness.”

Weber takes over, walking the players through video, which is projected onto the conference room’s wall. The video focuses more on player tendencies.

“This is a pass he makes all the time,” Weber says at one point.

At another point Boals jumps in to point something out on the video.

“Stop it right here,” he says, referring to the video. “Before the ball’s even in the net, they’re starting to run.”

At 8:09 p.m., Boals closes it, telling them to get some rest and letting them know about a few college basketball games on television that night.

SUNDAY, NOV. 19

East Lansing, Michigan — 10:51 a.m.

Players and coaches already have bumped into each other today during breakfast, but it wasn’t a formal gathering. This hotel offers a free breakfast for all, so the Stony Brook party was instructed to fuel up on its own there.

So the first time they meet, officially, is in the same wing of the hotel as they were in last night for what amounts to their “walkthrough.”

Typically a walkthrough would take place at the arena on the court they’ll be playing on later that day. But because today’s game has an early start time — 4 p.m. — and is the second half of a doubleheader, Stony Brook was told the only time they could use the court for their walkthrough was 7 a.m. They passed.

So instead, Stony Brook uses a conference room for a makeshift court, moving the tables and chairs to the side and placing medical tape on the rug to draw the lines around the three-second area, the free-throw line and the three-point arc.

For a basketball, they wrap medical tape around and around into a ball.

“OK, bring them in,” Boals says, and the coaches called in the players.

Here, they focused mostly on how to guard the inbounds plays that Michigan State runs.

Weber prefaces one play by saying, “This is the one they use the most. They’ve run it 15 times in five games.” Boals adds, “They call it blue something.”

And then a team of five staffers runs the play in slow motion, and Stony Brook coaches show their players how they should guard it.

Boals ends the walkthrough with a big picture view, saying Michigan State will be fired up because it is coming off a loss to Duke, the only team ranked higher than the Spartans.

“We need to get off to a good start,” Boals says, and stresses the importance of transition defense and rebounding.

They wrap it up just before noon with a catered lunch of chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes. Players have two hours before the bus leaves for the arena.

1:55 p.m.

The bus is scheduled to depart the hotel at 2:10 p.m., but players already have begun trickling on, stopping only to drop off their luggage. (Stony Brook will head directly to the airport in Detroit after the game to catch a late-night flight to LaGuardia.)

Nobody talks during the 23-minute ride to the arena. Most players have headphones on. The only sound heard on the trip was the bus driver answering his cell phone.

After arriving at the events center and walking into the arena through the underground loading dock, players go through their various pregame routines. Some get their ankles taped. Some go right onto the court to shoot around.

2:51 p.m.

Michigan State is familiar territory for Boals because of his seven years as an assistant with Ohio State, which also plays in the Big Ten Conference. A handful of people have been greeting Boals since they’ve arrived.

So it’s no surprise to Stony Brook’s second-year coach when MSU radio announcer Will Tieman walks into the coaches’ locker room without an appointment. Tieman and Boals exchange pleasantries and Boals tapes a pregame radio interview with him.

“We’re a work in progress,” Boals says. “We lost two of our top three scorers. We’re still trying to find ourselves a bit.”

3:21 p.m.

Boals talks to his team twice before the game — 30 minutes and 12 minutes before the opening tip — and the room is ready for his first talk.

There are three rows of chairs already set up in front of the lockers, and the whiteboard lists key strategy points for the players to remember on offense and defense.

The players arrive in the room well before Boals’ first talk and sit quietly among themselves for a few minutes awaiting him. The sound of the marching band playing permeates softly through the locker room walls.

When the coach walks in, players clap. Boals talks about the “disrespectful” way MSU practiced. “They obviously think it’s going to be a little easier than we’re going to allow it to be.”

3:47 p.m.

Boals speaks to his team one last time in the locker room before the game.

“Understand now, you’ve been in every game,” he says. “The Maryland game, the UConn game, the Ball State game. The results, the wins and losses, don’t show. But understand, for 40 minutes, you belong out there.”

There are new messages on the whiteboard.

On the left side is a list of each Michigan State player and their strengths and weaknesses.

On the right side are four keys to the game.

1. Compete!!

2. High-level alertness, transition D!!

3. 5 guys rebound!!

4. Have fun!

Underneath everything in big letters “OPPORTUNITY TO DO SOMETHING SPECIAL!!!”

Boals bangs on the board a few times and repeats those words for emphasis.

“The margin of error is this,” Boals says, holding his pointer finger and thumb together. “But we’re capable of doing it.”

After Boals is done, the players take a knee, place each of their arms on the player next to them and recite an “Our Father” prayer. Then they stand and put their hands together in the air and on the count of three yell, “Believe!”

Breslin Student Events Center — 4:04 p.m.

Michigan State wins the opening tip, and 6-8 forward Nick Ward converts a three-point play in the paint. An ominous start, yes. But Stony Brook quickly recovers and leads for much of the first half. It wasn’t until there was 3:33 remaining in the half when Michigan State grabs the lead for good, 34-33, on two free throws by Matt McQuaid.

4:58 p.m.

Stony Brook enters the locker room trailing 44-38, and players are fired up. They are banging lockers, clapping, yelling. Yes, they are no longer ahead, like they were much of the first half, but they are pumped up that they spent half the game going back-and-forth with one of the best teams in the country.

As Boals huddles with his coaches, Weber pops his head in the locker room and says, “We’re right in this and they’re scared.”

Players talk strategies among themselves, how to guard screens differently. One player’s voice rises above the noise. There’s so much noise, so many conversations taking place at once, it’s impossible to know who this voice belongs to. But it carries through the room.

“We’re right there,” he says. “Six points down, right there.”

When Boals enters the room, he says, “I love our competition. We competed and we led for much of the half. We’ve been in this situation, right? Whatever we need to do. Every single possession is going to matter.

“They’re over there getting ripped right now because you punched them in the mouth and you kept coming and you kept coming and you kept coming.”

Boals wants his players to be more physical, especially boxing out for rebounds. “I’m going to work the refs,” he says.

He ends by saying “it’s going to take the best 20 minutes we’ve played all year right here. Every single guy needs to be locked in and focused. Come on, let’s go win this game.”

They put their hands together again and — as players yell “We’re not done yet!” — they count to three and yell believe again.

6:06 p.m.

It wasn’t meant to be.

Michigan State is a national title contender for a reason. Its roster of NBA prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans quickly gained control in the second half by shooting 17-for-27 (63 percent) and out-rebounding Stony Brook, 20-6.

After Michigan State wins, 93-71, the players and coaches line up to shake hands. Spartans coach Tom Izzo tells Boals, “You guys are good enough to win some games. I don’t know what your league is like but you outplayed us for half the game.”

In the locker room Boals praises his players.

“We kept competing and we kept fighting,” he says. “That’s a helluva team there.”

Boals also says, “We got better today. Now, I don’t like being 0-4. I don’t like being 0-4. We’ve played well enough to win some games, but we didn’t close it out. There’s never a must-win game, but we need to win Wednesday.”

And then Boals is on to talking about what’s coming next.

No more than five minutes have passed since the final buzzer sounded, and the Stony Brook coach already has a new focus. Michigan State is in the past. Now it’s on to facing Brown.

EPILOGUE

Stony Brook won its home opener against Brown, 77-64, and moved to 5-8 Friday night with an upset victory over Rutgers, coached by Boals’ predecessor, Steve Pikiell. Boals says he’s not worried about SBU’s record. He has his eyes set on March 10, which is the America East title game. The only way to make it into the NCAA Tournament is to win the game — and the record carries zero weight.

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