For the third time in four seasons, Stony Brook basketball coach Steve Pikiell has the Seawolves (23-9) one win away from the school's first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. And this time, the America East title game against Albany (17-14), which will be televised on ESPN2 at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, will be played in the cozy confines of 1,630-seat Pritchard Gymnasium.
The only other time Stony Brook hosted the championship game was two years ago, when it was moved from Pritchard to a temporary court in Stony Brook Arena to satisfy a minimum-seating requirement by the conference that since has been dropped. In that unfamiliar setting, the Seawolves were upset by Vermont.
Albany received a 350-seat allocation, but the final game at Pritchard before a move to renovated 4,008-seat Stony Brook Arena in the fall still will feel like home. The Seawolves are 23-1 in conference games at Pritchard the past three years.
"The only thing that matters to me is these are the rims we've been playing on," Pikiell said. "The last game was a neutral site. I remember them polishing the floor up and getting it ready. It was like a scene from a movie.
"This is the gym they've been playing in the last four or five years. This is where they shoot in the summertime. It's real important. I just think the comfort of coming up the same stairs and being on the same bench and shooting at the same rims will help us."
Fourth-seeded Albany's semifinal upset of top-seeded Vermont (22-10, 15-1 America East) Sunday in Albany gave second-seeded Stony Brook the right to host. It's a good break, but the Great Danes earned last year's NCAA bid by winning at Vermont. And Albany had a 10- point second-half lead in the regular-season finale at Pritchard before losing, 73-68.
Coach Will Brown's team features four double-figure scorers in guards Peter Hooley (14.8 points per game) and DJ Evans (11.1) and forwards Sam Rowley (11.3) and Gary Johnson (11.1). They are considered the most physical team in the conference. Vermont's all-senior starting lineup lost its poise in a foul-plagued semifinal.
"That's how they play," Pikiell said. Recalling SBU's foul trouble in a semifinal loss last season at Albany, he added, "Tell me how the whistle is going. They're a really physical basketball team, well-coached, big, athletic guys. Vermont is physical, and Albany manhandled them."
The Great Danes' perimeter size poses matchup problems. Most likely, 6-2 Seawolves senior Dave Coley will guard the 6-4 Hooley and 6-4 redshirt freshman Ahmad Walker will be on the 6-6 Johnson.
On offense, Stony Brook must get 6-8 post man Jameel Warney, the conference player of the year, going early. It won't be easy against 6-10 center John Puk and swarming coverage.
"They have four guys plowing him everywhere on the floor," Pikiell said. "They try to hit him at every turn. They're physical, chesting, banging, reaching, hitting, punching in last year's game. They bring help guys down on him, and they're real good defenders."
So the pressure is on Warney and the Seawolves, literally from the Great Danes and figuratively in terms of the NCAA prize within reach. That's Albany's advantage.
"We've done a better job this year of talking about the game at hand," Pikiell said. "You've got to play 40 good minutes, and we haven't played our best 40 minutes of basketball. This is a good time to do it."