For a program with the singular goal of making the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance this season, the Stony Brook men’s basketball team’s 51-43 loss to the University of Vermont in the America East Championship game was a huge disappointment.
The arena was packed to its full capacity of 4,423. Those unable to sit watched from standing-only areas. The student sections looked like blocks of red, with the most die-hard fans having put on red face-paint and cheering on the home team while boisterously booing Vermont. Whenever a Vermont player had a free-throw attempt, a chorus of screams would descend upon him.
“It was insane; it was awesome and weird,” said Edwin Casado, 21, a senior computer science major who regularly attends games. “It was hard to coordinate chants, but it was very fun.”
It was only a few years ago when such a scene would have been considered a fantasy.
When head coach Steve Pikiell took the helm on April 13, 2005, he took over a program in turmoil. Having only been an NCAA Division I team since 1999 after being in NCAA Division II for the previous four years, the team had an overall winning percentage of 37.2 percent under previous head coach Nick Macarchuk and was a regular at the bottom of the America East conference.
“It was difficult; you had a lot of guys who weren’t really equipped physically to play Division I,” said Curt Hylton, WUSB 90.1’s color analyst for Stony Brook basketball and an alumni of the university. “They were solid Division II, but there’s a huge a difference between a Division I caliber athlete and a Division II.”
To make things worse, the team also struggled academically. In the 2004-05 season, the team was put on NCAA probation, unable to graduate their players at the Academic Performance Rate cut-off, a metric that measures the rate at which athletic programs graduate players on time.
“When you lose a lot of games and don’t graduate kids, that was kind of the culture; those are hard things to change” Pikiell said. “You gotta get kids to buy in; you gotta recruit, and get kids with a real positive approach to their academics and to basketball.”
As Pikiell was molding the program to his vision, on the court, things remained the same. The team finished dead last in the America East conference in Pikiell’s first three years.
In the 2008-09 season, however, things began to change. Starting three of its new freshman recruits in Bryan Dougher, Tommy Brenton and Dallis Joyner, the team finished with a 16-14 overall record and fifth out of nine teams in conference play, by far the most successful season in the program’s young Division I history.
Danny Carter, another member of that recruiting class, came over from England, saying that he was drawn by both Pikiell’s and assistant coach Jay Young’s enthusiasm.
“I’ve always come from a winning program, and so have Bryan, Tommy and Dallis,” said Carter. “We just thought we would come in fearless, we all came from winning programs and decided that we would carry on winning.”
With a new core in place, the team’s fortunes began to improve. Stony Brook would go on to make its first appearance in the National Invitational Tournament the next season, and would make its first appearance in an America East championship game the year after.
“The year before (my freshman year) from what I’ve seen at games and in film, it was not many people in the stands and stuff like that,” Joyner, one of the team’s co-captains, said. “I had talked to people in the summertime and they were telling me they had never been to a basketball game here, and now, it’s hard to find a student who hasn’t.”
Pritchard Gymnasium, the team’s main venue for home games, began to develop a reputation as one of the loudest crowds in the America East. According to program archives, the team has had a 39-17 record at home since the 2008-09 season.
“Honestly, I love the entertainment,” said Casado, who added that he didn’t start regularly attending games until the team’s first appearance in the National Invitational Tournament. “I’ve met a lot of friends, we just hang out, it’s special.”
Chris Murray, the Manager of Marketing and Game Day Operations for the athletic program, says that the team’s winning ways have helped the department promote the university.
“We’re almost selling our success now,” Murray said. “We’re saying ‘we have 20-win seasons now, come down.’”
While Pikiell has built up a winning team through recruiting and coaching, he says that there is more to building a program then having a good coach.
“It’s not just about the basketball on the court; it’s getting the community involved, the students involved,” Pikiell said. “We had great people in high positions that were able to help us facilitate those changes.
Murray, who used to be Wolfie, the school’s mascot, before his current job, says that the marketing department reaches out to both the student community and the local off-campus population.
“On campus, we just try to build a sense of pride among the students that everyone here is a Seawolf,” Murray said. “As far as off-campus goes, we want to become Long Island’s premier Division I athletics program; this is their hometown; this is their team; this is Seawolf country.”
Despite the loss to Vermont in the championship game and the graduation of Dougher, Joyner and Carter, as well as starter Al Rapier, Pikiell still feels that the program has its best days ahead, with three-star prospect Jameel Warney headlining next year’s recruiting class.
“We got a bunch of guys that believed in us that have worked really hard to change the culture,” Pikiell said. “They were winners on and off the court, and we continue to recruit kids like that, and it just snowballs.”
When asked about the program’s future, Murray said that he doesn’t see why the school can’t become bigger presence, even on the national scene.
“I look at the success we’ve had in these past six years I’ve been here, and we’ve grown leaps and bounds,” he said. “I always say that UConn wasn’t built in a night, it’s gonna take time to build that sense of tradition and pride, but I think our school is on the fast track to achieving that goal.”