Steve Pikiell

Stony Brook seeking to get over the hump, earn NCAA Tournament bid

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If one is to strictly judge a program’s success by berths to the NCAA Tournament, Albany and Vermont have been the top programs in the America East conference for the past 11 seasons as they have been there a combined eight times.

Will Brown has had sustained success at Albany, while Vermont’s success has been passed from Tom Brennan to Mike Lonergan and now to John Becker.

Many close followers of the America East would tell you that the top team may actually not be one of the aforementioned programs, but rather a school that has never even been to the NCAA Tournament: Stony Brook.

The Seawolves have accomplished a whole lot in a short time as a full-fledged Division 1 program: three regular season titles, three appearances in the NIT, and three 20+ win seasons in the past four years. Yet, no NCAA Tournament.

Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell understands getting to the NCAA Tournament needs to happen to help legitimize the program even further, but he isn’t about to discount the strides that have already been taken.

“I’m proud of the three league championships; we never had one,” Pikiell told NBC Sports after Stony Brook’s 68-63 loss at Columbia. “I’m proud of the guys in the program; they work hard and are great kids. Is there pressure? Yeah. I’d like to get there for Stony Brook University.”

The pressure Pikiell speaks of is a good pressure. The pressure signifies how far Stony Brook has come to the point of winning the America East is the expectation, and not just a lofty goal. However, real pressure — the kind that keeps a coach in his office late at night — is something he experienced in his first year at Stony Brook in 2005-06.

“My first year we started out 0-9. That’s pressure. Fighting for your life.”

Times have changed.

“We are going to compete for a league title this year. We have to hit three home runs. Our non-conference just ended, you want to have a winning record in the non-conference; we have that. Now we’re going into league play; we’ve won one game already. You have to hit another home run during the regular season. Then you’ve got to do it all over again in the conference tournament.”

It’s the usual suspects at the top of the nine team league as Albany and Vermont figure to be Stony Brook’s primary challengers.

“Vermont has I think like eight seniors; these guys have won a lot of games. And Albany, he does a great job – Will Brown up there. Last year, [the America East] had five teams in the postseason. You play tough non-conference games, so the record doesn’t indicate how good some of these teams are.”

When Stony Brook won 25 games last season — their most since they became a Division 1 program — the recipe for success was on the defensive end as they surrendered just 57.5 points per game. While the defense isn’t as strong this season with graduating claiming Tommy Brenton and Marcus Rouse, Pikiell believes his team can win in multiple ways.

“We’re a little bit young. We lost a lot of seniors last year, so we were kind of figuring ourselves out. I like our team. I think we can win in two ways this year, whereas last year it was defense, defense, defense.”

The Seawolves are already 1-0 in the America East having beaten New Hampshire earlier this season, but league play truly starts up this weekend on the road at Hartford — a team who handed them one of just two league losses a season ago.

VIDEO: Kris Dunn wills Providence to win over No. 11 Arizona

Kris Dunn, Elliott Pitts
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Kris Dunn spent the first 35 minutes of Friday night’s game against No. 11 Arizona in foul trouble, splitting his time between sitting on the bench and trying to avoid finding himself, again, on the wrong side the whistle.

With 11 minutes left in the game, and with Dunn yet to find a rhythm, the all-american point guard was whistled for his fourth foul as he battled for a rebound with Arizona’s Mark Tollefsen. Head coach Ed Cooley say his superstar beside his for six game minutes, time enough for Arizona to turn a 49-47 deficit into a 58-54 lead.

There were just over five minutes left when Dunn reentered the second semifinal of the Wooden Legacy, and he proceeded to show everyone in the country why he was named the Preseason Player of the Year. Providence had nine possessions after he reentered the game. Dunn scored 11 points and had a pair of assists on those eight possessions, and if Ben Bentil had stuck a wide-open three — that was setup by Dunn — the Friars would have scored on all nine.

In total, Dunn was responsible for all 15 Friar points in a game-changing, 15-7 run in the final 4:30. It was capped off by this Kobe-in-his-prime-esque game-winner:

The win for Providence is huge for a couple of reasons:

  • Dunn showed a killer instinct against a marquee opponent, something that we didn’t necessarily see out of him a season ago. He wasn’t going to let his team lose, and given that Providence doesn’t have anyone else that can consistently create good shots, they are going to need that from him a lot this year.
  • It makes a statement for the Friars. Arizona is overrated at No. 11 in the country, yes, but going out on national television against an elite program and getting this kind of performance from Dunn is a confidence-booster and a tone-setter. Providence hasn’t been accustomed to winning in recent years. This is a way to set a trend.
  • Ben Bentil continues to play like a star. Dunn had 19 points and eight assists on Friday, but Bentil followed up a 24-point performance in the win over Evansville with 21 critical points on Friday.

This win sets up a matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence on Sunday night, which means that Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn — the two best players in the country, sorry Ben Simmons — will be going head-to-head.

Oh. Hell. Yes.

No. 14 Cal goes 0-2 in Las Vegas Invitational

Jaylen Brown
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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After midnight on the east coast on Thanksgiving, No. 14 Cal blew a 15 point second half lead against San Diego State, allowing the Aztecs to use a 30-6 run to put away the game and advance to the final of the Las Vegas Invitational. That’s the same San Diego State team had scored 43 points in a loss to Arkansas-Little Rock last week.

Not 24 hours later, the Golden Bears were shredded defensively by the Richmond Spiders, losing 94-90 in the consolation game of a four-team tournament they were considered to be the heavy favorite in.

It’s a disappointing two-game stretch for Cal, who entered the season as a Pac-12 favorite and had looked the part for the first four games of the season.

And the issue appears to be on the defensive end of the floor.

Richmond is a good Atlantic 10 team. Terry Allen and Marshall Wood are high-major big men, Shawn’Dre Jones is a jitterbug at the point and Chris Mooney runs a Princeton-esque system that is very difficult to prepare for without a day in-between games. So it’s not really surprising that the Spiders gave Cal a fight.

But 94 points?

On the heels of giving up 44 points in the second half against the offensively-challenged Aztecs?

That’s a problem, one that I’m sure that Cuonzo Martin is going to address this week in practice. Martin has managed to put together a roster that is build for small-ball, with four talented perimeter players surrounding a first round pick in the post. But that’s not the style that he’s known for. Martin played his college ball at Purdue in the Gene Keady days. He cut his teeth as a head coach at Missouri State in the Missouri Valley. His team’s at Tennessee were known for being tough and physical defensively.

That’s how Martin coaches, which is part of the reason Cal had such hype entering the year.

The talents of Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews on a team with a coach that gets teams to defend the way Martin does? It’s no surprise that pundits would be optimistic.

But as of now, they have some work to do defensively if they want to live up to that hype.