Head coach Geno Ford during the Stony Brook men’s basketball home opener against Yale on Nov. 5. Ford was promoted in March after serving as the associate head coach since 2016. EMMA HARRIS/THE STATESMAN

Youth is in the Stony Brook Seawolves’ blood entering the 2019-20 season, and they know it. 

This is a team with zero seniors on the roster after graduating just one last year. Nine juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen will be counted on to lead Stony Brook through the America East as they seek their second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, looking to ensure that 2016 isn’t the only banner hung up in the rafters of Island Federal Credit Union Arena.

The Seawolves will have to do it all with a first-year head coach. Geno Ford was promoted in March after serving as the associate head coach since 2016. The decision to opt for continuity stands in contrast to the team’s last coaching change, when former head coach Jeff Boals was brought in from Ohio State instead of appointing 11-year Stony Brook assistant Jay Young to the position.

“The leadership is really a big key,” Ford said. “This is the first year I’ve ever been in coaching and not had a senior in the locker room. It’s an odd feeling.”

Stony Brook returns a number of key players from a squad that finished in second place in the America East last year, the program’s eighth top-two regular season finish in the last 10 seasons. Junior forward Elijah Olaniyi, the 2017-18 America East Rookie of the Year, took huge strides last season and leads all returning players having averaged 12.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting at a 43% clip. 

“Leadership’s nothing that I’ve shied away from in the past,” Olaniyi said. “So even last year, with one senior, I was still looked to as a leader on the team. It’s just stepping into a bigger role, which I’m ready for.”

Last season, the Seawolves lit up the defensive categories, ranking first in the conference in rebounding and blocking. Their offensive numbers were what left something to be desired, finishing last in three-point success rate and second-to-last in overall field goal percentage as the team impressed early with a 12-3 non-conference record before weaknesses began to show.

“We’ve made some wholesale changes on the offensive end,” Ford said. “I expect that will have some bumps in November because it’s new, but the hope is in January and beyond that the offense is clicking. We feel like we’ll be a good defensive team and a good rebounding team — we haven’t changed our strategies or game planning on that. On defense, we were good enough to win the championship [last year].”

Stony Brook’s non-conference slate is certainly tougher than a year ago. Three teams – defending national champions Virginia, Seton Hall and Providence – rank in the top 35 of the KenPom preseason ratings, with Virginia and Seton Hall ranked No. 11 and No. 12 respectively in the preseason AP Poll. North Dakota State and Yale both reached the NCAA Tournament last season, while a road trip to Nassau County for a “Battle of Long Island” bout with Hofstra is always a difficult draw.

“We didn’t put a schedule together where we were like, ‘Let’s try to win 24 games’,” Ford said. “The bottom line is, this schedule was designed so we can be grizzled and a little more of a finished product come February and March. Last year, we didn’t finish the way we wanted.”

The Seawolves remember just how close they came last season to a more glorious ending. Having roared back from a double-digit deficit against the Vermont Catamounts, the Seawolves held a second-half lead and looked as if they were about to knock off their America East foes on the road in the hostile battlefield of Burlington’s Patrick Gym. The victory would have put Stony Brook in the driver’s seat for the regular season title and home field advantage in the conference tournament. 

Instead, their lead evaporated, the Seawolves settled for the No. 2 seed instead, and were improbably upset at home by perennial cellar dwellers Binghamton to crush the team’s promising NCAA Tournament dreams. A week later, Boals suddenly departed from the team before the season – and his contract – ended to accept the position at Ohio University, his alma mater. 

The heartbreak would not stop for the Seawolves. In the first round of the postseason College Basketball Invitational, Stony Brook coughed up a 25-point lead against South Florida, ultimately falling 82-79 in overtime and ending the season on two straight crushing defeats. Rumors about the transfer of Akwasi Yeboah, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, followed the Seawolves throughout the offseason until he officially announced on May 2 that he would play out his final season of eligibility at Rutgers as a graduate transfer. Yeboah recorded 1,317 points in three seasons, enough to make him the sixth-leading scorer in the program’s Division I history before he left the confines of the America East for the bright lights of the Big Ten.

Boals and Yeboah are not the only faces that will not return. Sophomore guard Jules Moor transferred to Texas State and junior guard Corry Long went to Division II Southern New Hampshire. Point guard Jaron Cornish graduated and now plays for the Bahamas National Team, where he led them with 20 points in their defeat of national runners-up Texas Tech over the summer.

That’s a lot of talent gone, but the Seawolves are armed with a cast of fresh faces. The freshman class consists of two 6-foot-3 freshman guards, Tyler Stephenson-Moore and Tavin Pierre Philippe. Junior forward Mouhamadou Gueye is a 6-foot-9 JUCO transfer from Monroe College, and redshirt-junior guard Makale Foreman, who played two seasons at Chattanooga, is ready to make his Seawolves debut after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Foreman started all 33 games in his sophomore season, averaging 10.2 points per game for the Mocs.

“I’m highly excited [to be back],” Foreman said. “The game has slowed down for me a lot. I’m making better reads, seeing my teammates, getting my teammates open. I’ve gotten a lot better with my shooting form.”

Redshirt-junior guard/forward Andrew Garcia will look to impress in a starting role after winning America East Sixth Man of the Year. Garcia made two starts but appeared in 33 games as a redshirt sophomore; he had missed nearly two years due to knee injuries before blossoming in his first healthy season, shooting 52% on two-pointers.

“[Garcia] had a great year last year,” Ford said. “He’s been a guy who’s been able to score, and we’re going to need him to be more of a defensive presence and on the backboard for us, two things he’s certainly capable of doing.”

Over the summer, Stony Brook traveled to Europe to play three games against professional competition. The Seawolves won all three, but the true impact of the voyage is felt outside the box score. “We came together as a team since our Europe trip,” Garcia said. “We’ve really honed in on everybody’s strengths as an individual.”

With a combination of returning stars and fresh faces, it was crucial to gain experience as a team. “We’ve been building chemistry ever since then,” Olaniyi said of the trip, “through being able to play games, team bonding and being forced to spend time with each other since everybody else didn’t speak English.”

Between the Europe trip and the challenges set for the beginning of the season, the Seawolves have doubled down on forging themselves through adversity. It may wind up backfiring on them, but this team has confidence that they can make it through. 

Just don’t tell the Seawolves to settle for anything less. “That’s funny,” Olaniyi said with a chuckle when asked if he thought the team was in a rebuilding year. “We’ll see in March.”

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