NCAA Tournament. That's the goal of the Stony Brook basketball team. "It has to be this year, that's how everyone is taking it as,'' junior guard Leonard Hayes said. "We've accomplished everything else.''
Under Steve Pikiell, the Seawolves won the 2009-10 America East regular-season title and played Illinois before a big home crowd in the NIT, then last season, they fought off injuries and a losing record to come within a whisper of the NCAA automatic bid with a 56-54 loss to Boston University in the conference championship.
"We're going to keep swinging for the NCAA Tournament, that's where our program is now,'' Pikiell said. "We're going to get to the NCAA Tournament. Are we going to get there this year?''
Let his players answer the question. "It kind of has to be,'' senior guard Bryan Dougher said. "Making it to the championship last year and losing kind of put a bitter taste in our mouths. We don't want to feel that again.''
This season marks the return of 6-5 forward Tommy Brenton, the Seawolves' top all-around player, who missed last season with a dislocated kneecap and was on the bench when SBU lost in the conference final to BU.
"When we lost, everyone knew, that's the next step, to win it,'' he said. "Coach Pikiell brings it up to us, to make us remember how bad it felt. Everybody knows that's the goal, that's what we are striving for.''
Brenton could be the difference. "He has this presence on the court,'' Dougher said. "He's the smartest player I ever played with. He brings a winning mentality. He's going to do whatever it takes to win, like dive on the ground for a loose ball. Teams hate playing against him. I can tell why.''
Aside from Brenton, the talent is plentiful. Hayes was a bench player who became a shooting star last season. Dougher knocks down three-pointers as if they were layups. And forward Ron Bracey, a 6-5, 220-pound junior-college transfer, was the team's leading scorer during a summer tour in Europe. Bracey, who will start or be the first player off the bench, averaged 23.8 points and 6.8 rebounds at Kellogg CC in Battle Creek, Mich.
Dallis Joyner patrols the low post and Marcus Rouse runs the offense. But Pikiell has more in reserve, with capable guards Anthony Jackson, Dave Coley and forwards Al Rapier and Danny Carter.
"I can make a case for a lot of guys,'' Pikiell said. "This team is definitely the deepest and we're probably the most experienced since I've been here. But, you've got to do it, too.''