Photo courtesy of Daly Dose of Hoops/Robert Dea.
By David Cordova
These days, mid-major basketball is the rave when it comes to the college basketball scene. Sure, there are many who like the big-time, high-major programs, but the smaller schools are the ones that are getting just as much, if not more attention.
There is one school in the state of New York is making plenty of noise in the tri-state area and beyond and plans to make another NCAA Tournament run under a new regime.
The Stony Brook Seawolves are a program that is on a roll this season and is making plenty of noise with their outstanding play. But to understand their progression, you first have to understand how the program got to their successful road.
In 2001, the Seawolves transitioned from Division II into Division I basketball. There were a lot of rough seasons in between and also winning seasons in which they fell just short of their goal of winning the America East Conference championship and making an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
But all of that changed in the 2015-16 season, under then-head coach Steve Piekell, they would beat conference foe Vermont, and would win their elusive conference title and get over the hump and meet the perennial powerhouse Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Then soon after, Piekell would move on to Rutgers and longtime assistant and current head coach Jeff Boals would take over the reins. In Boals’ first season, Stony Brook went 18-14 and made an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational. Then last season, the Seawolves suffered through a dismal 13-19 season.
But this year, is a different story. So far, the team is 11-3 this season, going into Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa. They have gotten signature wins against several teams that were in the NCAA Tournament last season in South Carolina, Rhode Island and LIU Brooklyn and plan on achieving more wins during conference play.
“Give our guys a lot of credit, we got one senior, two juniors and ten freshmen and sophomores, and coming into the summer, I thought our culture, our upperclassmen did a good job of coming in and setting the tone,” said Boals.
When asked about the three big wins to start the season, Boals replied. “We went to George Washington, unbelievable start to the game, unbelievable finish to the game, found a way to win that one. Had confidence, then played South Carolina, you just see the confidence every single game. Different guys, different games.”
The Seawolves core players are 6-foot-5 redshirt junior forward Akwasi Yeboah (18.6 points & 6.9 rebounds per game), 6-foot-3 freshman guard Miles Latimer (12.2 points), 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Elijah Olaniyi (11.4 points & 5.3 rebounds), 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Andrew Garcia (9.2 points and four rebounds) and 5-foot-11 senior guard Jaron Cornish (9.1 points, 4.1 rebounds & 3.1 asssists).
They have also received contributions from 6-foot-5 freshman guard Jules Moor (4.4 points), 6-foot-11 junior center Jeffrey Otchere (4.2 points & five rebounds), 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Anthony Ochefu (3.6 points & 2.9 rebounds) and 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Jordan McKenzie (2.0 points).
The Seawolves have a lot of length in their backcourt and also have some good frontcourt help, most notably, Otchere, has a long wingspan is known for blocking shots.
When asked about their success on the road, Boals replied, “I think it’s our mindset, you know, we talk about, ‘In order to league championship, you have to win on the road,’ and the fourteen games we’ve played, I don’t think we’ve played the same style of play every game, so our preparation has been different. I tell our guys every game going in, ‘Don’t ever get tired of preparing to win.’ And the preparation starts like tonight, hydration, rest, ice on your knees, coming in tomorrow, and that’s when you win the basketball game on the following couple of days and they’re a close team. Obviously, when you win, they buy in a little bit more, and they’re having a lot of fun right now.”
“Everyone’s focused, we all want to be in the gym,” said Yeboah, “We all want to be in the gym, constantly, summer, everyone [on the team] in the gym, wanting to get better. It’s just everyone is buying in and working every day and challenging each other.”
When asked about how he felt playing for Coach Boals, Yeboah replied, “He’s great, he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, he honestly cares about about you as a basketball player and as a student and a human being. On the court, he actually lets you play your game, he lets you play your game. That really helps the confidence and energy on the team.
Added Moor: “I love playing for him, he does care for you on and off the court, he wants you to be better & successful. And he really pushes you to be better, so playing for him is just wonderful.”
When asked about Boals’ recruiting pitch to him, Moor replied, “He was just saying that he could help me get prepared for the next level, and that this is a good fit for me. When I came on my visit, I met people like like Kwas [Yeboah] and the team, I really felt like part of the family, and from Day 1, Coach Boals has been telling me to get ready and prepare me for life on & off the court.”
When asked if the road wins would help them get ready for America East play, Boals replied, “100%, we’ve seen all different styles of play. We scrimmaged Fordham, were they deny everything, we played South Carolina, where they deny everything, we’ve seen presses, we’ve seen man to man, we’ve seen 1-3-1 zone, we’ve seen every action we could possibly deal with, and that’s good for team purposes and preparation purposes and with a short turnaround, it’s tough to really get in what you want practice-wise. You can’t simulate what they do, but you can talk about, you know, but you can talk about the way they attack and the way to get to the free-throw line, denying the man and taking care of the ball.”
When a program is winning, then comes the attention from local high school programs with players showing an interest in wanting to come to the program. When asked about the feedback in the area, Boals replied, “The phone is ringing a little bit more, and everyone’s a little bit more receptive. You know, starting with Steve Piekell, I think we did a great job building the program to where it’s at and we’re trying to continue to take this thing even further, but we understand, the last couple of years, we talked about March 10th, March 11th, which was the [America East] championship game. This year, we’re talking about winning it all, looking forward, can’t control what happened in the past, can’t control what happens in the future, so we’re already locked in on the moment and I tell our guys,’ It’s hard to win, it’s tough, you’ve got to be able to handle prosperity like you did adversity.’ And with a young team, you know sometimes that’s tough. We played South Carolina, Twitter messages, text messages, pats on the back, you gotta refocus and be like, ‘Hey, I understand, why we did what we did & how we got to do that.”
The players however are fearless when it comes to the big moments. “Cause we prepare for it every day. You know, we watch film, we’re constantly in the gym, I feel like the main thing is, we all have one goal, and we’re hungry,” said Moor.
On being the elder statesmen around with a much younger team around him, Yeboah replied, “Just new energy, it’s fun to be around that new energy. They’re all excited to play, I mean it boosts me up in practice and in the games to see the focus and maturity everyone else has, so it’s great. The chemistry is great on & off the court, and we work extremely hard, in the classroom and on the court, so, we take pride in both, and it’s showing.”
On the three big wins, Yeboah added: “It was great, it was a big confidence booster, it brought a lot of national attention to us. It brought a target to our back, but we embrace it, we love the pressure and we’re not intimidated by it, so we keep working.”
This season, if all goes well, the Seawolves will win their second America East championship in four seasons and punch another ticket to the NCAA Tournament. However, it can be tough in a conference where, because there’s only one bid, only one single team from said conference can go on to the big show, the Big Dance as they call it.
However, with the heart that Stony Brook shows, there’s no reason they can make it to March 16th, the date of the America East championship game and go beyond.
When asked if they felt they could make a Tournament run, Moor replied, “Most definitely.”
In the month of March, hearts can be broken, and dreams can be turned into reality. But in the month of December, it is time to finish up the tuneups and get ready for the main event: conference play. After New Year’s Day, the Seawolves will be on a mission to be the conquerors, and not the conquered.