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

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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.

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“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.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.