The NIT is not usually associated with drama, but there was plenty of it for one local team heading into Sunday night's selections.
America East regular-season champion Stony Brook had an automatic invitation and will play at Massachusetts at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, but St. John's had no fallback position. As it turned out, the Red Storm also was selected and will play at Saint Joseph's at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The Red Storm did not present the best resume for a team that has won the NIT six times. A record of 16-15 -- with seven losses in the final eight games, including a first-round defeat in the Big East Tournament -- and the suspension of leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison did not seem to bode well. Now Big East rookie of the year JaKarr Sampson will have his season extended.
"When you play in the postseason, it gives your players an opportunity to deal with all of the challenges that present themselves when you're playing at a high level and in a single-elimination format, whether it's the NCAA or the NIT,'' St. John's coach Steve Lavin said in a statement. "We're grateful that we live to fight another day and extend our season because that'll pay dividends in the future in terms of our basketball program.''
He added, "Our players need to be further educated on the significance and the honor to play in the NIT. At one point the NIT championship was the bigger postseason tournament and also, when you talk about St. John's and their unique history when it comes to the NIT championship, it's really special to have our players play in it. We all wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament, but we have to deal with the reality of where we are in the evolution of our basketball program. The NIT represents an opportunity to extend our season so we can set the foundation to sustain our program for years to come.''
Said sophomore guard Phil Greene, "It's very important [making the NIT] because it gives us the chance to keep playing, keep the season alive, get better overall as a team and just get ready for next year. Our program is definitely trending upward with two postseasons in three years. We're just getting better each and every year, so hopefully next year we'll get a bid to the NCAA Tournament. We're focused on getting an [NIT] championship. The opportunity for championships doesn't come often. We want to bring the hardware back to New York City.''
Stony Brook (24-7) will be making its third NIT appearance in the last four years. It hosted and lost to Illinois, 76-66, in 2010, then lost at Seton Hall, 63-61, last season. Stony Brook earned its NIT berth by capturing the America East Conference regular-season title at 14-2. SBU lost to host Albany in the semifinal round of the conference tournament.
Albany, coached by former Miller Place and Dowling standout Will Brown, got progressively better in the conference tourney, beating Maine by one, Stony Brook by two and Vermont by four to capture the title. The Great Danes will play Duke in the NCAA Tournament.
Stony Brook has won 16 of its last 19 games and ranks 12th in the nation in scoring defense (56.9 points allowed per game). "We're very excited to continue the great season we've started,'' coach Steve Pikiell said in a statement.
The NIT will mark the final college appearance for Tommy Brenton, voted America East player of the year and defensive player of the year. He averaged 8.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists. It will be the first postseason appearance for America East rookie of the year Jameel Warney (12.1 points, 7.3 rebounds).
Said Pikiell, "We've won a program-record 24 games, and now we're going to the postseason for the third time in the last four years. This group has been a special team; in 21 years, this has been the most unselfish team I've ever coached. They have worked hard and made sacrifices to get to 24 wins and a regular-season championship. I'm especially happy for our seniors, who have won three out of four league championships. We're looking forward to playing a tough UMass team and hope to continue our outstanding season.''