Earning a Division I head coaching position typically comes with high expectations, particularly if it’s the first time at the helm like Stony Brook Men’s Basketball Head Coach Jeff Boals. But the former Ohio State assistant coach had bigger shoes to fill in his first season with the Seawolves last year. His arrival came on the heels of the graduation of Jameel Warney, Stony Brook’s all-time leading scorer, and the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth.
Opposing America East coaches expected a decline in Stony Brook’s ability to compete at the start of the 2016-17 season, projecting the Seawolves to be the seventh-best team in the conference in the America East Preseason Coaches’ Poll. However, Boals’ competitive nature helped drive his team to eclipse preseason expectations.
The Seawolves finished their conference schedule with a 12-4 record, chiseling themselves as the improbable No. 2 seed in the America East Tournament. Though a loss to program rival Albany in the America East Tournament semifinals ended their season, the culture Boals hopes to create was just beginning to take shape.
“We are building this [program] on high character kids, guys who love the game, and young men who are serious about earning a degree,” Boals said. “I really like where our culture is in our program and the guys that we have.”
Last year’s team first raised eyebrows during its first game against conference rival Albany on Jan. 8, overcoming a 21-point deficit in the final seven minutes of regulation to defeat the Great Danes by two points.
“Usually a team is a byproduct of their coach,” Albany Men’s Basketball Head Coach Will Brown said. “Its evidence that he put his stamp on the Stony Brook program in year one and his kids responded.”
Then-junior forward Tyrell Sturdivant, who had backed up Warney the prior two seasons, made the game-winning layup before the buzzer sounded. It was the second straight game Sturdivant had sealed the deal with a clutch field goal, despite never having been in the mix for taking the shot in clutch situations in his previous two seasons with the team. But Boals has the utmost faith in Sturdivant and the rest of his roster.
“He doesn’t get mad at shots and turnovers, as long as you’re being aggressive and playing hard,” Sturdivant said. “He’s never gotten mad at me or anyone else about taking a shot.”
In addition to instilling confidence in holdover players from former head coach Steve Pikiell, Boals has been successful in recruiting the right transfer players that fit his team’s style and culture.
Senior forward Junior Saintel and senior guard UC Iroegbu each averaged over 15 minutes per game last season to help cushion the loss of three seniors from the championship starting lineup. This season the team has added junior guard Jaron Cornish, who averaged 18.7 points for Broward College in Florida last season. Cornish, who is currently out with a knee injury, is expected to earn heavy minutes at point guard upon his return to full health.
Boals’ first freshman recruiting class at Stony Brook includes guards Jordan McKenzie and Corry Long and forwards Elijah Olaniyi and Anthony Ochefu. Olaniyi is the highest-rated player the school has successfully recruited since Warney arrived in 2012, according to ESPN. Ochefu is the younger brother of former NBA player and current member of the Maine Red Claws, Daniel Ochefu.
But while Boals has been successful in investing in the future of the program, he has also found ways to foster relationships with Sturdivant and other players he inherited from Pikiell. Boals encouraged then-senior Lucas Woodhouse, last year’s starting point guard, to become more of an aggressor than a facilitator last season. His evolution was perhaps the main reason Stony Brook exceeded expectations in Boals’ first season with the team.
“I think Jeff did a terrific job of revolving the offense around Woodhouse,” Brown said. “He was arguably the most important player in the league a year ago in regards to what he meant to his team.”
When Boals was a Buckeye, he played a major role in the development of current Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell and point guard Aaron Craft during their time with Ohio State. Now in his second season coaching the Seawolves, he will have the chance to develop new guards such as Cornish and McKenzie as well as continue to establish a foundation for the culture he is forging at Stony Brook.