Tiny Dancers: With Warney, Stony Brook can win in the NCAA tourney

Stony Brook has finally done it.

For the first time in program history, the Seawolves are going to the NCAA Tournament. And they can thank one of the best all-around players in college basketball, Jameel Warney, for the trip. The SBU senior had the best game of his life on Sunday, scoring 43 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and swatting four shots. He triggered a big run in the second half (Stony Brook trailed by as many as 15 points) and outright willed his team to the tournament.

It probably was the one of the most impressive things anyone’s ever done in the history of Long Island.

Stony Brook, the top seed in the America East, beat Vermont 80-74.

We told you recently why this team was so good, the best of any group this season that was still in search of its first NCAA Tournament bid. Now it gets its chance. What a tremendous story. Read more below.

But first …

Player to know: It’s Warney, Warney, Warney, Warney, Warney, Warney. He’s the first player in the past 19 seasons of college basketball to accumulate career totals exceeding 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 250 blocks, 200 assists and 100 steals. He averages 20 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. He’s one of the best players to come from a low-major conference in college basketball history. Yes, this is a guy who can go off in the first round and propel Stony Brook to an upset. His performance on Saturday was so good, you’re likely to see Stony Brook as a popular pick to reach Saturday or Sunday.

The Vitals:

  • Record: 25-6 overall, 14-2 in the America East (No. 1 seed)
  • Most recent tournament appearance: This is the first!
  • Jerry Palm predicts: 13 seed
  • RPI: 65
  • KenPom Ranking: 91
  • Sagarin Ranking: 97
  • Best wins: vs. Princeton, at Vermont
  • Worst losses: vs. Western Kentucky, vs. Vermont, at Northeastern
  • Notable stat: 77. That’s how many people attended the first home game Steve Pikiell coached at Stony Brook, a loss against Columbia on Nov. 26, 2005. Pikiell has remembered that number all these years. And now the arena is filled for every home game. What a program turnaround.

Closing quip: I want to give a little background on Pikiell. He’s considered one of the nicest, most genuine guys in college basketball coaching. An affable, humble small-program architect. He was a two-year captain at UConn under Jim Calhoun, including on that 1990 Huskies team that reached the Elite Eight. He was the first recruit Calhoun had/inherited when he took over the program in the mid-80s.

I spoke with Calhoun recently, and he remembered Pikiell, now 48, as a guy “who could make the ball talk and a true, true gym rat.”

Pikiell, who’s won more games than any coach in SBU history, took over Stony Brook in 2005. The program was in awful condition. It was a Division II school a half-decade before he got there. It faced probation, scholarship limitations and some of the worst APR scores in the sport. The team won four games in his first season. In his second season, the school’s administration promised him a new arena. Then the recession hit and he had to wait seven years for that facility.

Throughout this, Pikiell built the program and got so close so many times to reaching the NCAAs. You can make the argument, easily, that no team has faced more heartbreak in the past half-decade than Stony Brook.

Now he’s won four straight regular-season league titles. Stony Brook has sent 10 players to overseas careers. That wasn’t the case at all when he got there. He’s even thrilled by the simple things, like the program having a pep band to support it.

“How great is that? We have a band now!” Pikiell told me by phone a few weeks back.

He took the gig because there was only one direction upon entry: up. He knew a lot was riding on this season, but you want the truth? Pikiell would have still been happy with any outcome. It’s just his disposition. He strives to be great but understands what he’s done is more about the “99 percent” of things not related to winning an automatic bid.

“I really try to enjoy my kids,” Pikiell said. “It’s a tough life in a one-bid league, it’s tough and it comes down to neutral site a referee’s whistle, an injury. But it’s been an 10 unbelievable years.”

Pikiell’s demeanor is as refreshing as you can find in college hoops. I’ll let his old coach, Calhoun sum it up.

“I was talking with a guy recently, and we started talking about Steve. And there’s a lot of good people out there. But you don’t get this from everybody. It was like, ‘Steve Pikiell? The best ever.”

He’ll be the last person to say it, but Pikiell has earned this moment. It’s a huge event for the school, the program, the team, but it would not have happened without Steve Pikiell’s patience, humility and faith.

The Seawolves are finally heading to the biggest bracket of ’em all. (Screen grab via Stony Brook University)

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