A day of celebration was warranted for senior forward Jameel Warney and senior guard Carson Puriefoy after the two led the Stony Brook Men’s Basketball team to its first-ever America East Championship title. But a day was all they could spare, as on Selection Sunday, the team learned as the No. 13 seed that it would square off against No. 4 Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Really excited,” Warney said about playing in the NCAA Tournament. “First time playing in the tournament, first time we ever saw our name on Selection Sunday since my first year. We were in the NIT [National Invitational Tournament], so way, way better feeling than that.”
As excited as Warney and his teammates are, they are not fully satisfied. Puriefoy said he expects the team to compete in Des Moines, Iowa, and Warney agreed.
“There’s no such thing as a moral victory anymore for me, because once I lose, that’s my last game,” Warney said. “So, going out trying to win. I know I’m one of the best players in the country, I have to prove it in times like this.”
Upsetting Kentucky will prove to be a formidable task. The Wildcats won the national championship in 2012—one of eight in the school’s history—and made it to the Final Four in both 2014 and 2015. They have the nation’s most efficient offense, according to kenpom.com, an advanced statistics site, and three players who likely will be drafted by an NBA team in the first round. The team won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship and finished with a record of 26-8 this season.
“Obviously every year, they’re one of those programs that’s always right there to win the whole thing,” Seawolves head coach Steve Pikiell said. “It’s a program with tremendous tradition. It’s a program with tremendous players and a Hall of Fame coach.”
Kentucky head coach John Calipari, a three-time Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year, said that his team will not take Stony Brook lightly.
“We’re gonna have to have one of our better efforts to win the game,” Calipari said in a teleconference, praising the team and Warney. “One, well-coached. Two, their strength is their big kid, and they run great stuff, and he understands angles as good as anybody we’ve played this year.”
Stony Brook will be in better position than other first-time mid-majors to possibly pull an upset. From 2008 to 2013, a No. 13 seed upset a No. 4 in all six NCAA Tournaments. The Wildcats have struggled away from their home court, going just 9-8 playing on the road or on neutral ground.
The Seawolves have played ranked teams before, upsetting then-No. 13 Washington last year and taking on Vanderbilt, a No. 11 seed in the tournament, and Notre Dame, a No. 6 seed, this season. Although the Fighting Irish walloped the Seawolves, Stony Brook nearly beat Vanderbilt in a thrilling overtime loss in Tennessee.
Puriefoy said that playing games against tough opponents has helped prepare his team for the challenge ahead.
“It’s extremely helpful,” Puriefoy said. “The coaching staff does a great job of scheduling great schools. All we have to do is seize the moment. Upsets happen all the time.”
To pull off the upset, the Seawolves will rely on their defense, which is No. 61 in the country, according to kenpom.com.
Warney, who ranks 15th in the nation in rebounds per game, will likely have a large impact on the offensive glass. Kentucky is 270th in defensive rebounding, opening the door for many second-chance opportunities for Stony Brook.
Warney is coming off a standout performance in the America East Championship, in which he scored 43 points on 18-for-22 shooting. He averaged 30.3 points and 15.3 rebounds in his three America East Playoff games, playing at least 37 minutes in each.
“What’s fatigue?” Warney said when asked if he felt tired at all. “I don’t know that.”
Warney will have to be at full strength to match up against Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere, a 6-foot-11-inch center who may end up as a top-ten pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Freshman guard Jamal Murray, who leads Kentucky in scoring with 20.1 points per game, is expected to be picked even higher.
Freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe, who attended Roselle Catholic after Warney played at the same high school, provides strong defense for the Wildcats.
Puriefoy sees himself defending sophomore guard Tyler Ulis, who is averaging 17.2 points per game.
“He’s a great player,” Puriefoy said. “Can’t wait for the challenge, I know that he’s going to be ready.”
Stony Brook will be ready too. Ready to play the same way it has all year on its way to its first NCAA Tournament: defending, rebounding and playing through its seniors.
“The motto is still do what we do, play to our strengths,” Puriefoy said. “If we do that I think we’ll be successful.”