The plan was to ride a roster full of seniors to glory in what would have been the Stony Brook men’s basketball team’s best chance at reaching the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament since 2016. Vermont’s two-time America East Player of the Year, Anthony Lamb, was finally out of the way, and the Seawolves would return the star senior trio of guards Elijah Olaniyi, Makale Foreman and forward Andrew Garcia for their final seasons.
That vision was uprooted out of the blue. In May, all three of them transferred to Power Five programs; Olaniyi to Miami, Foreman to California and Garcia to Georgia. Garcia was the first to leave the program, triggering a chain reaction that resulted in Olaniyi and Foreman’s decisions.
“I don’t want to say I expected it, because the first one was surprising,” head coach Geno Ford said in an interview with The Statesman. “But certainly, after Drew [Garcia] left, the chances of Elijah and Makale leaving went to as close as 100%. Those three guys were really close and kind of a clique … not a negative thing … because they were in lockstep on and off the floor.”
Combined with the earlier transfers of Miles Latimer to Bucknell and Jeff Otchere to the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, likely due to playing time concerns, Stony Brook needed to replace its entire primary starting five from last season.
Of the 14 players on this year’s Seawolves roster, only six of them played minutes last season, and two of those six earned less than 20 minutes of total action on the court. The last-minute defections forced Ford to become active on the recruiting trail throughout the late spring.
“I’ve never in the month of May spent more nights at 3 a.m. watching film,” he said. “That’s a December/January activity on an annual basis, but not May.”
Ford believes that the pandemic played in Stony Brook’s favor when it came to filling roster spots this late in the year, as recruits would have normally visited schools and decided on their destination before May. The inability to do so this year provided a larger pool of available prospects than usual, but also supplied its own challenges in terms of player evaluation.
“What you missed out on was body language,” Ford said about recruiting virtually. “Being a good kid doesn’t guarantee success, but being a challenge to deal with and being self-absorbed is a guaranteed formula for failure; so I think that those parts of the recruiting were probably the most difficult.”
The newcomers are a balanced mixture of junior college transfers and Division I players, but all of them were brought to Stony Brook with the intent of being immediate contributors. The latter group consists of former Akron senior forward Jaden Sayles, former Manhattan junior guard Tykei Greene and former Mount St. Mary’s senior guard Omar Habwe. Juniors guard Juwan White, forward Leighton Elliott-Sewell, guard Juan Felix Rodriguez and forward Mohamed Diallo comprise the former.
It will not be easy replacing the production of the departed. Olaniyi, Foreman and Garcia alone combined for 1,461 of Stony Brook’s 2,283 points scored last season. Add in the loss of Latimer, Otchere and Anthony Ochefu, and that total jumps to 1,819 – nearly 80% of the Seawolves’ total offensive production gone.
Less than two weeks before the team’s season opener at Marist on Nov. 25, Ford does not have a concrete starting lineup in place. He admits that it will take time for individual players to separate themselves and prove who is deserving of the most minutes, which is made more challenging as Stony Brook’s non-conference slate this year is shorter than usual.
The top scorer returning is senior forward Mouhamadou Gueye, who averaged 7.0 points per game while making eight starts in 33 appearances. Gueye, best known for his defensive prowess which earned him numerous spots on SportsCenter’s Top 10, also averaged 1.9 blocks per game.
“I’ve spent a lot of time just working on my jump shot,” Gueye said in an interview with The Statesman. “That was an obvious weak point for me. I’m pretty athletic, I’m able to get to the bucket and finish plays — but I feel like I struggled outside. So I worked on that this summer to expand my game.”
Sophomore guard Tyler Stephenson-Moore started the final 11 games of the season, bolstering the offense with a string of four straight double-digit scoring efforts when Olaniyi was sidelined with an ankle injury.
“I would say I learned, definitely, that patience is key, that certain things are going to unfold that don’t go your way,” Stephenson-Moore, who dealt with an injury of his own last year, said in an interview with The Statesman.
The big wild card is redshirt-sophomore forward Frankie Policelli, who sat out all of last season. The 6-foot-7 Dayton transfer believes that he has improved in every aspect of the game since he last played, whether it be defense, speed, physical shape, dribbling skills or shooting. He was penciled in to play a large role before last year’s starters transferred, and his success is even more important to the team now.
“I don’t really feel too much pressure,” Policelli said in an interview with The Statesman. “It’s really going to be my first year playing in a while, so I’m just going to go out there happy to be on the court, to be honest, and just lead through experience because I’ve been around college basketball for a while and just try to teach the new guys from JUCO [junior college] how to be effective at this level.”
Among the junior college transfers, Ford singled out Diallo’s performance. The forward impressed in preseason before suffering a hand injury which could keep him out for the opener, but not conference play.
Stony Brook’s head coach remarked on the flaws of last year’s squad, which — despite the talent— did not play well together.
“Our best two scorers were isolation post-up drive guys,” Ford said. “Sometimes, really talented and good players don’t make each other better, or not enough better that you overcome and win at the level you’d want to.”
In contrast, he noted how the new roster was better at passing the ball. With a need to make up for the drop-off in driving and post-up plays, building team chemistry is vital and can only come from actual gameday experience.
“It’s kind of hard to believe — especially for people who aren’t present in the gym, because we have so many new players, but realistically, I think the chemistry has been really good,” Gueye said. “We have a good group of guys and everyone’s pretty cool. We have the same kind of mentality where we all consider ourselves underdogs.”
Stony Brook was picked to finish fifth in the America East when the conference released its annual preseason poll. Winning 20 games and landing in the top two of the America East has become the standard expectation for the Seawolves, who have done so eight and nine times respectively in the last 11 seasons.
Ford’s second year at the helm of the program comes with its set of challenges, from massive roster turnover to COVID-19. When the Seawolves take the court for the first time since March, they will do so with much to prove.