As Stony Brook basketball standout Tommy Brenton watched his school's baseball team make a stunning run to the College World Series last June, the senior forward experienced a wide range of emotions.
Pride that friends of his were gracing SportsCenter and the back pages of the New York tabloids. Motivation to reach his first NCAA tournament next March and perhaps make a similar run. And yes, even a hint of envy that it was the baseball team and not the basketball program tasting postseason glory.
"What they did is what we want to do," Brenton said. "So there was a little bit of jealousy involved, but overall I was really proud of them and happy for them. Seeing them make the run they did, it's inspiring to know that we could do the same thing."
To capture the nation's attention, Stony Brook basketball will first have to make the NCAA tournament, a goal that has proven elusive since the Seawolves transitioned to Division I in 1999. Twice in the past two seasons Stony Brook has been one win away from the NCAA tournament only to fall in the title game of the America East tournament, last year as the No. 1 seed playing on its home floor.
In an America East conference severely weakened by transfers, Stony Brook appears capable of winning the league again this season and making another run at an NCAA bid. The graduation of guard Bryan Dougher and forward Dallis Joyner deprives the Seawolves of their leading scorer and one of their top rebounders from last season, but enough talent returns that anything short of an NCAA bid would be a disappointment to Brenton and his teammates.
"We definitely talk about what it would be like — the hotels, the pregame and the atmosphere in that arena," Brenton said. "I've had a good career but to make it a great career, I have to get to the NCAA tournament. NITs are great, but there's nothing like an NCAA tournament."
The Seawolves have found all sorts of ways not to finish the job in Brenton's first three seasons.
In 2010, they erased a 16-point first-half deficit in the semifinals against fourth-seeded Boston University only to fall 70-63. In 2011, they surrendered a 15-point lead to Boston University in the title game and lost by two on a pair of John Holland free throws with 2.4 seconds to go. And in 2012, they entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second time in three years but failed to generate enough offense in the title game, falling 51-43 to second-seeded Vermont.
Dave Coley reacts in the second half of last year's title game loss to Vermont (US Presswire)As the Seawolves have come closer and closer the past couple years, the pressure on the team continues to mount. Last season, Stony Brook's strength and conditioning coach xeroxed his ticket stub from the title game onto the cards players filled out every time they lifted weights. And this offseason, the team emphasizing finishing strong before every conditioning or lifting session and ends every practice by collectively shouting "NCAA" on three.
It's Brenton who's probably the biggest key to Stony Brook capturing another America East title and contending for its first-ever NCAA bid.
Brenton, perhaps the league's most versatile player last season, averaged just 7.8 points per game as a junior because he was content to facilitate on offense and expend energy playing stout defense and crashing the glass. The 6-foot-5 wing knows he must be more aggressive on offense next season if the Seawolves are going to be successful, whether that's by taking the ball to the rim more often or not passing up an open perimeter look.
"Being a vocal leader and being more of a threat offensively are going to have to be the two biggest changes to my game this year," Brenton said. "If we want to win, coach has told me I have to score. I have to be an offensive threat. He loves everything I do, but if I want to go to the NCAA tournament I have to take that on my self and help contribute more offensively."
Brenton will benefit from being another year removed from the knee injury that sidelined him the entire 2010-11 season. He'll also be better off if complementary players like guard Dave Coley and wing Ron Bracey shoulder more of the scoring load.
Coley has looked more confident hitting his jump shot and finishing at the rim this summer, according to Brenton. And Bracey appears quicker and more confident after shedding 20 pounds since last season.
For Bracey, Brenton and the rest of Stony Brook's senior class, the urgency they've approached their offseason with is no coincidence. They view this season as their final chance to be part of the first Seawolves team in program history to reach the NCAA tournament.
"The past few years have all been great seasons, but we will never forget how we couldn't finish," Brenton said. "That's really the moral of each practice and each workout. When we lift weights or we go running, we have to finish off strong."