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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.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

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.

No. 11 Kentucky struggles before putting away Missouri

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 21:  Bam Adebayo #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the first half at Rupp Arena on January 21, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Kentucky won. That’s probably all the Wildcats need to take away from their time in Columbia, Mo.

Eleventh-ranked Kentucky defeated Missouri, 72-62, in a game that was an absolute slog for the Wildcats until the final minutes offered them some separation and reprieve from the feisty but undermanned Tigers.

Missouri led throughout much of the first half, but never held an advantage after halftime. Still, the Tigers were there lurking closely for much of the final frame, something their 7-20 record would suggest they were incapable of, even at home against Kentucky on a night where the Wildcats were about as sharp as the shape of basketball itself. Which is to say, not sharp at all.

Bam Adebayo was an absolute force on the interior for Kentucky. The freshman big had 22 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the floor and a 10 of 13 mark from the free-throw line. He also had 15 rebounds and three blocks. Missouri, like plenty of other teams before them, had no answer.

The question, though, for Kentucky this night was what kept De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk from being productive? The pair struggled from start to finish, combining to go 8 of 22 overall and 2 of 7 from deep along with five turnovers. Making matters even worse was Isaiah Briscoe’s night. He shot it fine (4 of 6) but had six turnovers in 23 minutes.

It just wasn’t pretty for the Wildcats.

Overall, Kentucky went 5 of 18 from deep and had 17 turnovers, allowing one of the SEC’s cellar dwellers to make things interesting until the Wildcats were able to put the Tigers at arm’s length in the final few minutes.

It’s certainly not an inspiring performance from Kentucky, but against Missouri on the road, it’s not exactly surprising to seem them come with something less than their best. It can probably be excused to circumstance rather than anything more serious.

For Missouri, it was a missed opportunity to add some sort of silver lining to yet another dismal season under Kim Anderson. The third-year coach probably wouldn’t have improved his job prospects much with a win over Kentucky – things have been too bad for too long for one game to move the needle – but it still would have been nice for Missouri after so much misery, you know? But, alas, the game ended like most of them have for the Tigers in recent years, with a loss.

Now, Kentucky heads into Saturday’s matchup against No. 13 Florida with the regular-season SEC title – and some pride – on the line. The Gators whipped the Wildcats by 22 in Gainesville earlier this month, and both teams will enter Rupp Arena with matching 13-2 SEC records.

Both teams will have two games remaining after Saturday, but it would appear to mere formalities for both. Whoever wins Saturday almost certainly will win the conference outright.

Cline’s 3-pointers lift No. 14 Purdue over Penn State

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - JANUARY 21: Isaac Haas #44, Carsen Edwards #3, Caleb Swanigan #50 and Vince Edwards #12 of the Purdue Boilermakers react in the second half of the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Mackey Arena on January 21, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue defeated Penn State 77-52. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Accustomed to dominating in stretches lately, the 14th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers found themselves on the other end of a big score and needed a savior against a gritty Penn State team on Tuesday night.

Enter Ryan Cline.

The guard scored six of his 11 points in overtime to lift Purdue to a 74-70 victory over the Nittany Lions in a game the Boilermakers led for just 9:16.

“It rarely happens where a team outplays another one, plays harder and they lose the game especially on their home court,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Thank the Lord Cline knocked those two shots down.”

Cline’s consecutive 3-pointers secured his team’s sixth straight win and snapped the Nittany Lions’ four-game winning streak against Top 25 teams visiting the Bryce Jordan Center.

Vincent Edwards added 14 points, Isaac Haas chipped in 13 and Dakota Mathias scored 12 for the Boilermakers (23-5, 12-3 Big Ten) who trailed 33-29 at halftime.

Tony Carr scored 21 points, Lamar Stevens added 18 and Mike Watkins finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds for Penn State (14-14, 6-9). The Nittany Lions owned the paint, even against Purdue’s towering bigs — 6-foot-8 Caleb Swanigan and the 7-2 Haas — where Penn State owned a 46-12 edge.

But the Nittany Lions couldn’t get deep shots to fall. They finished just 2 for 18 from 3-point range.

“That was as hard as we’ve played all year,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Proud of my team. However, there’s no more moral victories here. We’ve got to get some things done. We’ve got to close out games.”

Penn State led for all but 7:35 of regulation and by as many as 10 points midway through the first half. But they surrendered the lead on a dunk by Haas with 10:13 left. The Nittany Lions used a 10-2 run and four straight baskets from Carr to send the game into overtime where Cline found his shot.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: The Boilermakers cooled off after a recent hot streak saw them dominate for large stretches of games. Purdue’s five-game winning streak entering the night included wins over Michigan State, Rutgers and Northwestern, all by at least 17 points.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions are still looking to eclipse their combined win total in January and February under Chambers. Penn State won six games for their best stretch in the two-month span a year ago and will have two more tries to surpass last year’s mark.

LOOSE GUARDS

Painter wasn’t happy with his guard play for much of the game. He sensed confusion from his backcourt and it cost them in the form of turnovers. Ten of Purdue’s 17 giveaways were committed by guards.

“Our guard play and overall ball control, there’s no question, there were times they were hesitant,” Painter said.

BIG MAN BATTLE

As Chambers spoke with reporters, he guessed Watkins was sitting in the locker room with nothing left in the tank.

“He’s exhausted in that locker room,” Chambers said. “He battled. He went toe-to-toe with a potential lottery pick and a potential first-rounder some day in Haas because I think Haas is a pro.”

Watkins was outmuscled in his first game against Purdue’s sizable forwards when he scored just six points and grabbed only three rebounds earlier this season. He had 12 rebounds in the first half — including three straight offensive midway through the first half — that brought the crowd to a roar when he finally drew a foul and made two free throws.

SHOT CLOCK ISSUE

A shot clock mishap cost the Nittany Lions a possession in overtime. With 13 seconds left and Purdue up 72-70, Haas took a jumper and missed close to the rim with the shot clock waning. It would have run out had Shep Garner not fouled P.J. Thompson immediately afterward, however.

Chambers said he thought Garner might have believed Haas’ shot hit the rim. Instead, Thompson made both free throws to put the game out of reach.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Purdue survived a scare and its place in the poll should remain safe.

UP NEXT

Purdue plays at Michigan on Friday.

Penn State travels to Minnesota on Friday.

VIDEO: Mizzou fans chant ‘Cal you suck’ during interview, Calipari ignores question about it

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts against the Michigan State Spartans in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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This is so great and so awkward.

Let’s set the stage: No. 13 Kentucky played a pretty terrible half of basketball at Missouri, heading into halftime up just 31-30 after trailing late in the half.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari was clearly not happy about it and ripped his team in the halftime interview … while the Missouri student section chants “Cal, you suck,” which is completely audible on the broadcast. Laura Rutledge, the SEC Network sideline reporter, asks him about it, and he ghosts her.

Cal is not here for your jokes.

No. 13 Florida continues hot streak with win over South Carolina

Florida forward Devin Robinson (1) celebrates with guard KeVaughn Allen (5) as South Carolina guards PJ Dozier (15) and Hassani Gravett (2) walk up court after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Gainesville, Fla. Florida won 81-66. (AP Photo/Matt Stamey)
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Things keep rolling for Florida, all the way to a nine-game winning streak and a de facto SEC regular season championship game in Lexington this weekend.

The Gators’ offense was lethally efficient and its defense stout in their 81-66 over South Carolina on Tuesday to likely end the Gamecocks’ long-shot SEC title aspirations while seriously bolstering their own chances.

Florida did its damage offensively in some of the most productive ways possible. The Gators connected from deep and converted from the free-throw line.  From distance, they were 9 of 19 (47.4 percent), and from the charity stripe, they were 22 of 27 (81.5 percent). That’s a winning formula almost every night out.

Maybe most encouraging for Florida was the return to dynamism of KeVaughn Allen. The sophomore guard had his best game in weeks, going 5 of 7 from the field – including 3 of 5 from distance – and got to the line for 14 attempts, making 13. Allen hasn’t been able to get to the free-throw line with a ton of consistency – his free-throw rate is only 23.7 – but he has shown some flashes of forcing his way there recently with 14 tonight and 10 a week ago at Auburn. If he can even approach those numbers with regularity, it’ll be a huge boon for the 87.5 percent free-throw shooter. It should be a priority for him.

The offensive outburst by Allen and the Gators at large was especially impressive coming against a South Carolina team that possesses one of the country’s stingiest defenses. The Gamecocks are typically great at making life at the 3-point arc difficult for opponents, but Florida shredded them there.

Converting from the 3-point line certainly helped cover for the absence of 6-foot-11 center John Egbunu, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. Devin Robinson picked up the most slack inside, blocking three shots and grabbing six rebounds, and South Carolina wasn’t really able to do much damage on the offensive glass.

With its defense taking an atypical beating, South Carolina’s offense exhibited the issues that have plagued it all season long. The Gamecocks were 3 of 14 (21.4 percent) from 3-point range, and the lack of threats along the arc shrunk their spacing and allowed Florida to harass them inside. If the offense is going to be stifled – which it probably will be more often than not with an average effective field goal percentage ranked outside the top-300 nationally – the defense has to be elite, which it was far from against Florida.

South Carolina now finds itself in a bit of a precarious, if manageable, position. The Gamecocks have lost three-straight, not something a team that is doesn’t have a 100 percent secure position in the NCAA tournament. Yes, South Carolina has a solid resume, but this is sliding in the wrong direction at the worst time. The good news is that the final three games of the regular season – vs. Tennessee, vs. Mississippi State and at Mississippi – are wholly manageable. The bad news is a stumble against any of those teams isn’t going to be looked upon with much favor by the selection committee.

The big picture for Florida is much rosier. The Gators, as noted above, are steamrolling through the final stretch of the season. They’re staking their claim to a top-three tourney seed, and will have a chance to come very close to claiming regular season SEC superiority Saturday as well.

Florida, which blasted Kentucky 88-66 earlier this month, travels to Rupp Arena to take on the No. 11 Wildcats. Both teams will be sporting 13-2 conference records (assuming Kentucky gets by/doesn’t implode at Missouri tonight) with two games left on the schedule after Saturday in which they’ll both be heavy favorites. Even if Kentucky can’t leave Columbia with a win (pause for laughter), a conference championship – whether outright or shared – will be on the line.

It might not garner the same fervor as the one played in December at the Georgia Dome, but there’s going to be a heck of an SEC title game this weekend.

No. 9 Baylor holds on 60-54 over Oklahoma to stay in 2nd

WACO, TX - JANUARY 17:  Head coach Scott Drew of the Baylor Bears in the first half at Ferrell Center on January 17, 2017 in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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WACO, Texas — Johnathan Motley had 21 points with 16 rebounds and No. 9 Baylor ended a two-game slide with a 60-54 victory over Oklahoma on Tuesday night to remain in a tie for second place in the Big 12.

Baylor almost blew all of a 15-point lead in the second half, and held on even after not making a field goal in the last 6 minutes

Oklahoma used a 21-8 run to get within 49-47 on Jamuni McNeace’s jumper with 9:21 left. But Manu Lecomte then hit consecutive 3-pointers for the Bears, though those were more than 2 minutes apart and their last field goals.

The Bears (23-5, 10-5) stayed even with No. 12 West Virginia and Iowa State in the conference standings with three games left in the regular season. Baylor’s Big 12 title hopes likely ended with a 67-65 home loss Saturday to No. 3 Kansas (24-3, 12-2).

Kansas, which is home Wednesday night against TCU, is one win from guaranteeing at least a share of its 13th consecutive Big 12 title.

Kameron McGusty had 13 points to lead the Sooners (9-18, 3-12), and was the only one of seven players who scored in their big run to make multiple baskets. His 3-pointer started the big spurt.

Lecomte finished with 11 points, while Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. had 11 points and nine rebounds for Baylor.

Oklahoma’s only lead in the first half came when Rashard Odomes converted a three-point play for a 3-2 lead only 45 seconds into the game. Motley made a tying free throw right after that before Lual-Acuil’s jumper made it 5-3.

The Sooners had scoring droughts of 5 and 3 minutes in the first half, when Lecomte, Lual-Acuil and King McClure all had 3-pointers in an 11-0 Baylor spurt that made it 22-7.

BIG PICTURE

Oklahoma: Lon Kruger will have to wait until another game for a chance to get his 600th career victory. After an NCAA Final Four appearance last season, these young Sooners, with 11 underclassmen and less than two weeks after losing senior Jordan Woodard to a torn ACL, still have some work to do to avoid the team’s first last-place finish in the Big 12.

Baylor: The Bears again made things much harder on themselves than necessary, though they did hold on to win this time. After taking a 41-26 lead early in the second half following a 3 by Motley, the Bears couldn’t build on that momentum and were in a struggle for much of the second half. Baylor was outscored 8-0 in the last 3 1/2 minutes of their home loss to Kansas on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Oklahoma: Home against Kansas State, the alma mater of Kruger, a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year for the Wildcats in 1973 and 1974.

Baylor: At Iowa State on Saturday. The Bears beat Iowa State 65-63 in their first Big 12 home game Jan. 4.