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Steve Pikiell built Stony Brook, now it’s time to reach the NCAA Tournament

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

When Steve Pikiell became the head coach of Stony Brook in 2005, winning basketball games — something that should have been the primary objective for a new coach — was seemingly secondary at the time. Of course, winning was important, but continuing to usher Stony Brook from Division III to the Division I level and correcting academic issues that had been an ongoing issue with the team were primary obstacles for the young coach in his first head coaching role.

Today, Stony Brook is becoming a force in collegiate athletics. Football achieved national notoriety last season after defeating Army and reaching the FCS playoffs finishing with a final ranking of #11 in the Sports Network poll. Baseball orchestrated a memorable run in the 2012 College World Series as they reached Omaha knocking off programs such as Miami (FL) and LSU in the process. They have an athletic director and president who have made an institutional decision to use athletics as a vehicle to elevate Stony Brook on a national level.

In 2005, however, things weren’t this rosy for Stony Brook, especially their basketball program.

(MORE: Click here to read NBCSports.com’s America East Preview)

“When I took over we had an APR of 805. Every obstacle you could have as a young head coach was right there in front of me, but I was excited.”

It wasn’t too long ago that keeping players on the team eligible, no less winning basketball games, was a tall order. Pikiell understood the challenges and was aware that things looked bleak at the time he took the job, but he recognized how Stony Brook was a giant that just needed some poking to wake up.

“When I took the job I saw the potential, even though the program hadn’t been winning. When you take over a program that didn’t have much success in the last 20 years, and then you add some obstacles to it as you move from Division III to Division I, my first couple of years was mostly just about managing and trying to get through obstacles. But, I knew what a great place it was when I was hired. We have great leadership here.”

Today, the talk surrounding Stony Brook basketball sounds something like: “When will they finally reach the NCAA Tournament?” Or, “Are they on the verge of becoming the next great mid-major?”

It’s something that is constantly on Pikiell’s mind and a goal of his every season. Every coach in the country, especially at the mid-major level, aspires to win their league and advance to the Field of 64.

“My goal every season is to win the league championship, go to the NCAA Tournament, and graduate everyone.”

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Yet, to discount the success in other areas would be foolish, especially considering the state of the program when he took over: “…[W]e’ve done everything else – in a program that hadn’t done any of those things. We’ve graduated everyone, kids have signed pro contracts, we’ve won postseason games, we’ve had the Student Athlete of the Year, the Defensive Player of the Year, the Rookie of the Year, the Player of the Year– all things that Stony Brook basketball never really saw.”

The product that is being put on the floor has not gone unnoticed as their quaint arena, Pritchard Gymnasium (Stony Brook is in the process of building a new arena), routinely sells out. Pikiell joked that years ago he wasn’t even sure if selling season tickets was an option: “In the past, I don’t even know if we had season ticket holders. But now, they shut off season tickets about a month or a month and a half before the season.”

While the preceding accolades and success are tremendous, it is time for Stony Brook to get over that final hurdle of winning the America East. Three years ago it was a last second loss at Boston University in the championship. Two years ago a loss at home to Vermont in the championship. Last year, as the No. 1 seed, it was a loss on the road to Albany in the semi-finals.

Despite the close losses, Pikiell remains very confident in the program’s future and knows a league title is on the horizon. At the mid-major level, keeping a coaching staff intact is important for continuity and recruiting, and that has been a key for Stony Brook’s success:

What I like most about [the staff] is this isn’t just about trying to get one great recruiting class and ride them out to move onto the next level. This is about being consistent and building. We lost four seniors last year who all signed pro contracts. Two years ago when Bryan Dougher graduated, people said we wouldn’t be as good, but we went from 22 wins to 25 wins. The program is in place to continue to be good and continue to compete for league titles.

Pikiell is clearly committed. His name has been rumored for others jobs recently, but he’s stayed put at Stony Brook and recently accepted a contract extension over the summer through the 2017-18 season. The Connecticut native is content on Long Island and, having spoken at length of the tremendous growth the university has and continues to make, there’s no reason to think the basketball program won’t continue to take steps forward under his watch.

The next step to take and obstacle to conquer? Reach the NCAA Tournament.

Auburn lands third transfer within the last week

Auburn guard T.J. Dunans (4) and coach Bruce Pearl celebrate a 75-74 win over UAB in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.  (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)
Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP
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After receiving commitments from former Purdue/Houston guard Ronnie Johnson and former Presbyterian forward DeSean Murray, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl continued to load up on the transfer market Monday. Forward LaRon Smith, who was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Bethune-Cookman last season, announced that he will use his final season of eligibility at the SEC program.

Like Smith, Johnson will also be eligible to compete immediately for the Tigers while Murray will have to sit out next season before having two years of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-8 Smith played two seasons at Georgia State before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, where he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest in 2015-16. Smith played just over 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.

Smith reached double figures in scoring in four of the Wildcats’ final seven games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in an overtime win over North Carolina A&T. He joins a front court in need of depth following the departures of the likes of Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris, with Horace Spencer, Trayvon Reed and incoming freshman Anfernee McLemore also competing for minutes in 2016-17.

SMU lands former Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt

Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt (24) leaps for a layup past Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips (25) during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. Arkansas won 75-65. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP
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With a five-member recruiting class set to arrive on campus this summer, SMU added a talented transfer Monday afternoon. Jimmy Whitt, who played his freshman season at Arkansas, committed to join Larry Brown’s program. Whitt, a 6-foot-4 guard from Columbia, Missouri, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2016-17 campaign.

As a freshman at Arkansas, Whitt averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in just over 17 minutes of action per game. He reached double figures in scoring nine time, with the high being a 15-point outing in a blowout win over Missouri in mid-January. Whitt produced a stretch of four consecutive games in double figures during non-conference play, but he struggled to maintain that consistency against SEC competition.

At SMU he’ll join a perimeter rotation that will lose rising senior Sterling Brown following the 2016-17 season. Among those who will have eligibility remaining when Whitt becomes eligible are Ben Emelogu, Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and incoming freshmen Tom Wilson and Dashawn McDowell.

 

Boise State assistant named head coach at Northern Colorado

rp_primary_Linder_Jeff_Action_vs_Dayton_031815_2_
Courtesy UNCBears.com
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GREELEY, Colo. (AP) Jeff Linder is the new basketball coach at Northern Colorado. He spent the last six seasons at Boise State, where he was associate head coach for the Broncos since 2013-14.

Linder replaces B.J. Hill, who was fired last month amid an NCAA investigation into allegations of violations in the program.

University President Kay Norton and Athletic Director Darren Dunn announced Linder’s hiring Sunday.

Linder played high school ball in Lafayette, Colorado, and college ball at Mesa State and Western Colorado State. He began his coaching career under Colorado head coach Ricardo Patton.

In a statement, Linder said, “I look forward to returning home to the state of Colorado and continuing to build this program into something everyone can be proud of.”

Hill was 86-98 in six seasons at UNC.

Duke’s Azura Stevens transfers to UConn

Duke's Azura Stevens (11) steals the ball from North Carolina A&T's Kenya Hailey, right, as Duke's Ka'lia Johnson watches during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)
(AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)
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STORRS, Conn. (AP) Azura Stevens, the leading scorer and rebounder for Duke, has decided to transfer to UConn.

The 6-foot-6 sophomore center from Raleigh, North Carolina will sit out next season and will have two years of eligibility remaining when the 2017-18 season begins the school announced Saturday.

Stevens averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds a game and was named to the ACC’s all-conference first team.

She was second in the league both scoring and rebounding.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Saturday that he normally doesn’t get involved in transfer situations, but Stevens convinced him that Storrs would be the right place for her going forward.

Beachem says he’ll be back at Notre Dame for senior season

Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem reacts during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Wisconsin in the regional semifinals of the men's NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Forward V.J. Beachem has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Beachem made the announcement Sunday night on Twitter, writing that he was thankful for the opportunity to experience the NBA draft process and invitations to work out for teams, “but now I’m ready to lead [Notre Dame]. #IMBACK.”

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward finished third on the team in scoring, averaging 12.0 points and 3.9 rebounds as the Irish finished 24-12. He was at his best in the NCAA Tournament, when he averaged 17.5 points as the Irish advanced to the Elite Eight for a second straight year.

Coach Mike Brey sent a Tweet saying he was thrilled Beachem will return.