Adaptation is key in college basketball, and head coach Geno Ford is well aware of it. The Stony Brook men’s basketball team has had to work around one of its star players transferring out in each of the past two seasons, with forward Akwasi Yeboah heading to Rutgers two seasons ago and guard Elijah Olaniyi going south to Miami after last season.
Despite the loss of Yeboah before the 2019-20 season, the Seawolves were still able to put together a competitive season. The team finished with a 20-13 record — four wins below where it finished in the 2018-19 season, but still good enough to claim the No. 2 seed in the America East heading into postseason play. This time the team did not falter in the first round, narrowly defeating No. 7 Albany before falling to No. 3 Hartford in the semifinals.
“I thought we had a really good year,” Ford said in an interview with The Statesman. “I mean, it’s always disappointing when you don’t cut the nets down and win a championship, but from a transition year where we lost a first-team all-league player, Yeboah left with a year to play [which] was a blow to our roster.I thought guys really stepped up. I thought we got better.”
If last season was a transition year for Ford, this season looks to be a complete re-tooling. Stony Brook not only saw Olaniyi transfer out, but three other starters walked out alongside him — as well as some key bench players. In response the program has brought in a court full of new transfer players, many of whom can challenge for starting minutes right out of the gate.
“We have a learning curve ahead of us. We have seven first year players, that’s a lot,” Ford said. “We’ve got first year players that are in severe competition for starting roles that have never scored a point at this level. They’re going to have to figure it out on the fly, but our individual talent is good, and it’s plenty good enough for us to have a very good year and compete for a championship which is what our goal is.”
Part of that learning curve will be figuring out how the ball will flow between a new core of players, and early indications are that it will be more spread out than in previous years. Ford mentioned that last season the team effectively ran two sets on offense — one designed around former center Jeff Otchere and one around senior forward Mouhamadou Gueye. Gueye is the lone starter returning to the team, but he believes that they have an opportunity to become more efficient because of this.
“Honestly, I feel like this year would be even better,” Gueye said. “Last year we had a lot of talent, but this year we have a lot of talent and we have the right pieces in the right places. I feel like we’re more of a rounded team this year instead of last year. We had a couple of talented guys that were where the ball would just stick in those places and we had to feed off of those players.”
Gueye went on to say that he expects the team to have a deep rotation and rely on the hot hand for particular nights. The roster, in his opinion, now features multiple players that are capable of making a lot of different plays for the team. Ford sees the roster as one that certainly has depth to it, but also sees some difficulties ahead with a small amount of time before conference play begins.
“We’re going to have to go deep early in the year to give guys some opportunities,” Ford said. “Which presents some challenges also, because you go in and you don’t play a lot of minutes and you need to, you feel some pressure to perform, and ‘I need to play well or I’m not going to get back in,’ or ‘I go in and make a mistake, they yank me out I don’t go back in for 10 minutes.’ And quite frankly, that’s the position that a handful of guys are in right now, and they’re just gonna have to play their way out of it.”
This balancing act is one of several things that Ford is going to have to manage, due to the lack of preseason games and a shortened non-conference schedule. This trial by fire mentality is one of many outcomes that the ongoing pandemic has forced the program to adopt, but it does guarantee one thing — this team should look a lot different by the end of the season than they will at the beginning. Whether that leads them to success is a question that the players will have to answer when they finally take the court again.