One of the thousands of reasons why college basketball is so much fun and injects irrefutable joy into our cynical sports world every March: the small-school automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It’s even better when that school wins its league bracket to reach the Big Dance for the first time.
Stony Brook should — or at least deserves to — be that team this season. Finally.
The top seed in the America East has its best chance ever to finally crack through, and not just that, but kill demons in the process. The Seawolves (what a moniker) have been taken out in varying methods of heartbreak the past three seasons — by the same program. Look farther and you’ll see Stony Brook has entered every March since 2010 with realistic hopes of winning the America East’s auto bid. No school in that span has gotten closer to the NCAAs yet failed to actually get there than the Seawolves. This has been Stony Brook’s rocky road in recent history.
2010: The Seawolves, who converted to D-I just nine years prior, go 13-3 and wins their first regular-season America East title. It’s the program’s first season finishing above .500 in the league. But Boston University says buh-bye with a semifinal knockout.
2011: BU again beats SBU, this time in the Seawolves’ first trip to a D-I league championship game.
2012: Stony Brook bests its previous record mark in the league with a 14-2 finish. The top-seeded Seawolves get the title game on their home floor — then manage a season-low 43 points lose to Vermont.
2013: Stony Brook’s highest-rated team ever finishes with a program-record 25 wins and goes 14-2 in the league. It faces Albany in the semis and the hex begins.
“We didn’t know how to handle it,” do-everything Stony Brook star Jameel Warney said. “We didn’t show up that game.”
The Great Danes — which got the game on their home floor because the America East held its tournament in Albany that season — beat the Seawolves 61-59 on a layup in the closing seconds.
2014: Another really good year in the league (13-3) ends with another loss in another America East tournament to Albany. This time it’s the title game and it’s not close: 69-60.
2015: Another buzzer-beating loss for the Seawolves against the Great Danes, this one becoming an instantly viral story. Albany’s Peter Hooley, who lost his mom to cancer earlier in the season, sinks the winner. Stony Brook led 49-42 with less than a minute remaining. This is a sword to the stomach.
This year should be different. Although Stony Brook has lost two of its last three, SBU has firmly proven itself to be the best team in the conference in 2016 by a good margin. And with the America East changing its league tournament format, coach Steve Pikiell will get his chance to finally break through by having each of his team’s games at SBU’s arena.
They start Wednesday night against UMBC. A win there would mean a spot in the semifinals on Monday, with the AE title game being held in its annual spot: an 11 a.m. tip the day before Selection Sunday.
This group isn’t a common small program with a nice record. From Dec. 13-Feb. 17, Stony Brook did not lose. Its 18-game win streak ties for the longest of any team in college basketball this season. The accomplishment came in good part because of Warney, who is putting up numbers — no matter the level — that are bonkers. He’s only the third guy to win Player of the Year three times in the America East. Warney is one of five players nationally averaging at least 18.7 points and 10.2 rebounds. He’s the program’s all-time leader in points, boards, blocks and games played. No player across the past 19 seasons of college basketball has hit career milestones of 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 250 blocks, 200 assists and 100 steals.
And he’s now a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the conference thanks to his 92 blocks this season, third most in America. He’s third nationally in Player Efficiency Rating and first in win shares, according to Basketball Reference.
Warney is one of the most dominant players at the low-major level in the history of college basketball. Yes, he can absolutely carry Stony Brook to the tournament, and if SBU gets the right matchup, then a 3 seed could get got because Warney plays just as well against the big boys as he does against small schools. He propelled the Wolves to a win at Washington last season, and in SBU’s six games against teams from power conferences in the past two years Warney’s averaged 14.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
He’s a legitimate NBA prospect, the kind of guy who might find himself thriving with the San Antonio Spurs three years from now.
Pikiell was onto him early — and thought he’d lose him late. He offered Warney immediately, then watched as his hodgepodge AAU team dominated in games, mostly against anonymous teams. Then, two days before his final AAU game in Orlando in 2011, Warney went off against a good team.
“He destroyed people in that game, went for about 30, Iowa offered and it was tweeted out,” Pikiell said. “And the next game he played, I think it was his second to last game of the July period, there were about 40 BCS schools watching him. I remember sitting there being like, ‘Oh, my God.'”
Warney stayed loyal though. He committed to Stony Brook shortly after, even when dozens of bigger programs tried to poach him late.
“In my 25 years, every kid recruited goes to the highest level even if they can’t play there,” Pikiell said. “But this kid went to the right place for him. We were ahead of the game, and it meant something to him.”
Warney, along with starting seniors Carson Puriefoy and Rayshaun McGrew, are three wins from writing one of the best stories this March can provide. Fittingly, Albany is on the opposite end of the bracket, sitting there as the 2 seed.
“We know they’re not going to slow down,” Warney said. “They’re three-time champions for a reason.”
Pikiell, a gracious man, has the patience of a hospital nurse.
“Everyone’s caught up on that last weekend, and I understand it,” he said. “But we’re trying not to make that define our program. We’re about consistency. Three of the last five players of the year in the conference came from us. Everyone’s going to talk about the 1 percent of things we haven’t done, but I’ll focus on the other 99 percent that we have done.”
The 1 percent is all that’s left. There are dozens of programs who’ve never made the NCAA Tournament, but none of them are as good as Stony Brook is this year. With a senior as good as Warney, this is exactly the kind of small-time team with a big-time player that can do damage once it gets into the bracket.