Following a disappointing season, the Stony Brook men’s basketball team now finds itself in uncharted territory. With a new conference, new players and low expectations, the Seawolves will look to prove the doubters wrong in their 2022-23 campaign.
Expectations were high for Stony Brook’s 2021-22 team, which boasted one of the best transfer classes in program history. An America East conference title looked to be in the cards. Though there were questions about their size and defensive ability, the roster was stacked with talented scorers to help cover up any of its deficiencies. Unfortunately, the team did not deliver on its championship aspirations — nor did it even stick together.
Last February, Stony Brook announced it would be joining the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). In response, the America East disqualified the team from postseason contention. Players quit over frustrations with the ruling. Other players quit over their minutes and touches. The Seawolves wound up finishing third in the America East with a record of 18-13 overall and 10-8 in conference play.
“We had a lot of guys who were scorers,” head coach Geno Ford said in an interview with The Statesman. “Did the guys get along off the floor? Yes. Did we always play together as well as you want to on the floor? I mean, probably not.”
Ford has a lot on his plate in his fourth season leading the team. The team is projected to finish ninth in the CAA in the annual coaches’ preseason poll. Regardless of the low expectations, Ford is optimistic about the shot for his team to play in the NCAA Tournament in March.
“I don’t feel more pressure,” Ford said. “We’re all very motivated to have a good year. I want to help them have the best chance they can to be successful and to win.”
Another challenge facing the team is its lack of continuity. Nine players from last year’s roster have either transferred or graduated, and most of them were impact pieces. Guards Jahlil Jenkins and Juan Felix Rodriguez are both gone. Guard Anthony Roberts was the conference’s second-leading scorer last year, but he declared for the NBA draft and did not return. Guard Tykei Greene led the conference in rebounds per game, but he transferred to Kansas State. Forwards Omar Habwe and Jaden Sayles graduated. Of course, forward Elijah Olaniyi also defected last year, but he would not have been eligible to return anyway.
The roster turnover leaves the Seawolves with just four remaining players from the 2021-22 squad. Guard Tyler Stephenson-Moore and forward Frankie Policelli are the two returning rotational players from the prior year, and they will step into bigger roles this upcoming season.
“It poses a huge challenge because those guys now — Frankie and Tyler — we not only need them to score, we need them to lead,” Ford said. “Both of them, if you know them, are two of the most high quality guys you could ever be around. Both of them at their core are quiet and are a little bit of ‘lead by example’ guys. I couldn’t honestly be any prouder of Tyler and Frankie.”
The two were voted co-captains by their teammates for the upcoming season. Policelli has taken his leadership role to heart.
“I try to lead by example,” Policelli said. “I actually had to be more vocal just because we have a lot of young guys. I just feel like if you do the right thing, people are going to follow. Me and Ty, Tanahj and Kaine, the returners, we all kind of stepped up vocally.”
Stephenson-Moore was the fifth leading scorer for the Seawolves a season ago, starting in 22 of his 28 appearances. The 6-foot-3 guard was the most efficient perimeter player for Stony Brook in his third year, shooting 47.9% from the field and a scorching 44.8% from three-point range. He also knocked down 85.2% of his free throws. With an increased role this season, the co-captain brings outside scoring, perimeter defense and a veteran presence to an inexperienced roster.
As for Policelli, the lefty shooter is known for his three-point prowess. He shot 36.1% from deep last year while also hitting 80.4% of his free throws. Ford is bullish on Policelli’s passing ability and has referred to him as one of their best ball-movers. Expect Policelli to play a larger role in facilitating this season.
Guards Kaine Roberts and Tanahj Pettway will both be returning for their second year at Stony Brook. Pettway transferred to Stony Brook in 2021 but only made two appearances last year before a shoulder injury ended his season. Roberts was a benchwarmer in the first half of his freshman season, but he got some minutes in the second half after the in-season departures of Jenkins and Rodriguez. Now a sophomore, Roberts will likely step into a bigger role in the offense this season.
“Playing behind Jahlil and Juan, two very good college point guards, I learned a lot,” Roberts said. “It helped me at the end of the year when things weren’t going well. I had the opportunity to step up, and a lot of things that they taught me are what I added to my game.”
Last season’s roster was centered around its guards. Though it was beneficial for the offense to have at least four shooters on the floor at a time, the defense suffered mightily with the lack of size. The Seawolves finished dead last in the conference in defense, allowing 73.1 points per game.
This was a problem that Ford knew had to be addressed. He did just that this offseason by bringing in four players who are 6-foot-10 or taller. The vast increase in size should help Stony Brook in rim protection and controlling the glass.
Center Keenan Fitzmorris is the prototypical big man that the Seawolves needed. The seven-foot graduate student will provide a paint presence that will grab rebounds and erase mistakes on the defensive end.
“I bring a post presence, being able to score over either shoulder in the post, being able to set physical ball screens and grab rebounds,” Fitzmorris said. “And then we have a ton of shooting, but if I’m able to hit one or two, I can help open up opportunities for other guys to get driving lanes and get to the hoop and get dunks.”
Forward Kenan Sarvan will join Fitzmorris in the frontcourt. Sarvan has a different skill set than Fitzmorris, bringing playmaking and shooting abilities as a big man. Last year at Mineral Area college, the 6-foot-10 Sarvan shot 39.5% from three on almost six attempts per game. Ford has made it clear that he will be rolling out rotations that include Sarvan at power forward in double-big lineups, something that may strike fear in opponents.
“He’s going to play a ton of four,” Ford said. “He’s played a ton of four. He’s played more four than five, so he’ll be on the perimeter a ton.”
Other notable additions to the frontcourt are center Rocco Muratori and forward Leon Nahar, both coming in as true freshmen. Ford said that Muratori will join Fitzmorris and Sarvan in the center rotation to start the season, standing at a towering 7-foot-3 and weighing 270 pounds.
With the lack of size last season, Policelli was relegated to playing many of his minutes at center. Luckily, size is no longer an issue for the Seawolves, and the natural small forward will get back to his roots of playing on the perimeter this season.
“I’m super excited to go back out on the wing,” Policelli said. “The good thing was that I was able to learn how to post up smaller players. So I kind of developed that part of my game a little bit. So in retrospect, I guess I’m kind of grateful for it because now I can apply it to this year. But being on the wings is more natural for me.”
Another big player to look out for is guard Aaron Clarke. The 6-foot-1 graduate student played four seasons for the Sacred Heart Pioneers, making the All-NEC Third Team and leading the conference in assists per game last season. Clarke was named an All-CAA honorable mention in the preseason polls. He suffered a back injury in the offseason, and the timetable for his return is not yet clear. When he returns, Clarke will be starting at point guard.
“Aaron had an awesome summer,” Ford said. “He was trending towards, clearly, starting point guard and a huge role. He’s had a little injury setback, he’s been out for about a month. We’re going to get him back, but I don’t know if that’s tomorrow or two weeks from now.”
Other additions to the backcourt include guards Dean Noll and Sabry Philip. Noll spent four seasons at Cornell before making the move to Stony Brook and was named Second Team All-Ivy League last season. He was expected to play a key role for the Seawolves this year but will be out for the season after tearing his ACL in September.
Unfortunately, it’s a similar story for Philip. The Navarro College transfer brings athleticism and scoring to the roster but will miss the season after tearing his Achilles tendon during training camp.
“Those are huge losses; Sabry and Dean are very good players and just about as high quality human beings as you’d ever want to be around,” Ford said. “But we’ve got to find a way to figure it out.”
The openings in the backcourt will require a young player to step up. Some freshmen names to look out for are guards Toby Onyekonwu and Jared Frey. Onyekonwu brings a little bit of everything to the table, averaging 25 points, five assists and five rebounds in his senior year of high school. Frey brings size at 6-foot-4 as well as lights-out three-point shooting, holding the single season record for three-pointers made and three-point percentage at International Sports Academy at Andrews Osborne.
“What I would say about Toby is that he is a super willing learner,” Ford said. “He comes in all the time, wants to watch extra film, and he wants to be really good. [Frey] is one of the best shooters to ever step foot in this gym. Elite shooter, has some game off the dribble. He will play a ton.”
Though the loss of key players is a punch in the gut for the Seawolves, they still have the potential to keep their heads above water in the CAA. It is unlikely that they will be able to put up 72.9 points per game like last year, but the defensive versatility and rebounding hopes to pull them past expectations.
“I’m hoping to see a group of guys that can really play together and that can play in games like we can in practice,” Ford said. “We’ve been an excellent passing team. We’ve been a very unselfish team. We’ve been an excellent three-point shooting team, and we’ve got guys who can score in the low post.”
Stony Brook may not be as talented or flashy as last year, but the team likes its chances. It may be a long shot for the Seawolves to go dancing in March, but if everything falls into place, it may not be impossible.