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.