The transition to a new conference was not a smooth one for the Stony Brook men’s basketball team in the 2022-23 season. The bar was set low for the Seawolves, and they validated those expectations with their worst record in 15 years.
In the team’s first season in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the Seawolves were predicted to finish in ninth place in the annual coach’s preseason poll. They were right around there, as they finished 11-22 overall and 6-12 in conference play, landing them in 10th place.
In his fourth season as Stony Brook’s head coach, Geno Ford acknowledged that the season was not up to his standards.
“It wasn’t acceptable to anybody,” Ford said in an interview with The Statesman. “It certainly wasn’t acceptable to me, the fans, or to the administration. We need to win more.”
Regardless of the record, the season was not a complete failure. Stony Brook was able to snag its first CAA postseason victory with a first-round win over North Carolina A&T, but were crushed by the eventual conference champions Charleston in the quarter finals the day after.
Coming into this past season, Stony Brook had many questions to answer. Only returning four players and two starters from the previous year, major roster turnover meant that newcomers needed to step up. Unfortunately for the Seawolves, many of those new additions got injured before they could even get started.
Guards Dean Noll and Sabry Phillip both suffered season-ending injuries before the year even began. Guard Aaron Clarke suffered a back injury just before the start of the regular season, keeping him sidelined for the first month. This forced Stony Brook to reach deeper into its rotation and rely on inexperienced players, such as freshmen guards Toby Onyekonwu and Jared Frey.
Onyekonwu was thrusted into the starting lineup in the season opener against Florida, being expected to run the offense in his first collegiate game. Frey — noted as a three-point marksman by Ford — was the first man off the bench and played important minutes. However, an ankle injury after the game kept Frey out for the remainder of the season.
Without veteran depth on the floor to help him develop, Onyekonwu had to learn on the fly.
“Those are guys that have been in college for years, so they know the ins and outs of how things are supposed to be done,” Onyekonwu said. “I wasn’t scared, but it’s not what you expect. I’m young, so I’m not thinking like ‘I’m about to play’, but you have to do it. It’s basketball at the end of the day.”
Playing with as few as eight players in the rotation already, the injury bug did not go away. Onyekonwu broke his nose, keeping him sidelined for five games, which forced guard Kaine Roberts to take his place in the starting lineup. The sophomore played very few minutes in his first season with Stony Brook, and handling starting point guard responsibilities proved to be a challenge.
Despite all of the injuries, most of the team’s frontcourt players managed to stay healthy for most of the season. This left Ford with taller, slower lineups, which forced them to play at a sluggish pace offensively.
“We had eight guys in uniform on average,” Ford said. “When you have eight guys dressed but three of them play primarily the same position, it’s not like you have an eight-man rotation. So we were playing some funky lineups.”
Without a true, experienced point guard like Clarke or Noll, Stony Brook’s offense lacked the ability to generate dribble penetration. Not having a dribble-drive game also hurt the Seawolves’ ability to catch and shoot, and missing shooters such as Frey and Clarke prevented them from spacing the floor out. As a team, they finished just eighth in the CAA in three-point shooting percentage at 32.2%. Stony Brook was the third-worst shooting team overall at just 41.3%.
Naturally, the Seawolves’ inability to shoot rendered them the second-worst scoring offense in the conference at 63.1 points per game. Most of the burden was placed on the shoulders of their co-captains: guard Tyler Stephenson-Moore and forward Frankie Policelli. Stephenson-Moore was the team’s leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, but his shooting line was affected by the lack of spacing. He shot just .403/.293/.839 on the year. Policelli was the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.7 points per game on a .422/.368/.802 triple slash.
Clarke made his Seawolves debut in their 10th game of the season against Yale and played well, scoring 20 points on 6-of-13 shooting. He took much of the scoring load off Stephenson-Moore and Policelli, but the team still lost. Clarke wound up playing only two more games before re-aggravating his back injury and missing the rest of the season.
Stony Brook’s first win against an NCAA Division I competitor did not come until its 11th game of the of the season against Sacred Heart — the game that Clarke re-injured his back. Two games after Clarke’s season-ending injury, Onyekonwu returned to the floor and finished out the season as the team’s starting point guard.
Stony Brook finished the nonconference half of its schedule just 4-9 and 2-9 against NCAA Division I teams. However, the team started off the conference season on a high note, winning three of its first four games. This momentum was halted by a four-game losing streak, putting a dent in the Seawolves’ chances to finish towards the top of the CAA’s standings.
The losing streak hit a low in the fourth game against William & Mary when Stephenson-Moore — the team’s leading scorer — got hurt. He missed the next three games with a bruised tailbone before returning towards the end of the season.
Given the Seawolves’ luck with health and their dependence on Stephenson-Moore, an injury seemed inevitable. This was amplified by how much Stony Brook relied on him, as a lack of depth forced Stephenson-Moore to remain on the court for most of the game. He logged 40 minutes or more in 12 games throughout the season, and his 37.4 minutes per game were the sixth-most in the NCAA.
Even after Stephenson-Moore came back, Stony Brook struggled. After going 1-2 in the games without him, the Seawolves went 2-5 once he returned to the court to close out the regular season. In the regular season finale against Charleston, they were blown out 92-52 in their most lopsided loss in over 17 years. The -40 point differential was the fifth-largest margin of defeat ever.
The Seawolves faced off against North Carolina A&T in the first round of the postseason. After falling down 14-0 in the opening minutes, Policelli put the team on his back with 30 points, 16 rebounds and three steals to snag the program’s first CAA postseason victory. Stony Brook moved on to the quarter finals to take on Charleston for a hopeful revenge game. However, the Seawolves were blown out of the water by the Cougars and were sent home.
Much of Stony Brook’s success came from the output of its defense. It held its opponents to 69.1 points per game which was the sixth-best in the conference, and its 42.6% opponent field goal percentage ranked fourth.
Stephenson-Moore was big in the Seawolves’ defensive success, as he was constantly tasked with guarding the top scoring option. He wound up second on the team in steals (27), rebounds (130) and rebounds per game (4.3). Combined with his scoring numbers, Stephenson-Moore earned a selection to the 2023 All-CAA Third Team.
For Stephenson-Moore, a career role player up until this past season, the award meant a great deal.
“It was just an honor to get recognized,” Stephenson-Moore said. “Being one of those college kids that had an up and down first couple of years, and coming into a new, tougher league and gaining a lot of respect from these other coaches, it feels great.”
Another aspect that aided Stony Brook’s defense was its improved height. The team boasted four players who were at least 6-foot-10 or taller. Despite this, rebounding was still challenging at times for the Seawolves. Their 7.6 team offensive rebounds per game was the worst in the conference, but their 26.3 defensive boards was second-best. This combined for 33.9 rebounds per contest, putting them directly in the middle of the conference.
Much of the rebounding load was put on Policelli. The 6-foot-7 wing led the CAA with 9.4 rebounds per game. He also pulled down 7.8 defensive boards per contest, which was the seventh best number in the nation. He also picked up 24 steals, which was the third-most on the team. Despite his solid numbers and rebounding title, Policelli missed out on an All-CAA selection.
After four seasons with the Seawolves, Policelli has entered the transfer portal to play out his last year of eligibility elsewhere. Ford said that the team will miss Policelli both on and off the court.
“Frankie is a connector,” Ford said. “He’s a great guy. That will be a big loss because you’re talking about a good player that everybody liked.”
Ford confirmed that Stephenson-Moore will return to play out his final year of eligibility with the Seawolves next season. Clarke and Noll both received injury redshirts from this past year and will also return to play for Stony Brook next season. Onyekonwu and Frey will return for their sophomore seasons, while Philip will return to make his Stony Brook debut.
Onyekonwu will likely have a larger role next year, as he played well to end his freshman season. Over the final 15 games, he averaged 9.2 points per game and finished with the most assists (81) on the team.
Another returning player will be starting center Keenan Fitzmorris, who was one of the team’s brightest stars. After rarely seeing the floor in his four years at Stanford, Fitzmorris finally got the chance to show what he is capable of with the Seawolves. He was the team’s third-leading scorer with 9.8 points per game and was sixth in the CAA with 31 blocked shots. Despite being a fifth-year player, he has multiple years left of NCAA eligibility after barely playing with the Cardinal.
Ford praised the seven-footer and is excited to have him back.
“Another huge piece of what we’re doing and how the program is functioning,” Ford said. “For a seven-foot guy to go get you 20+ points … there were games where he was unguardable.”
Fitzmorris credits his breakout season to both his hard work and the job his coaches did.
“I have a ton of confidence because of the preparation that I’ve put in, but the belief and confidence of my teammates and coaches was very inspiring,” Fitzmorris said.
Along with Fitzmorris, Ford confirmed that forward Leon Nahar (6-foot-10) and center Rocco Muratori (7-foot-3) will return for their sophomore season’s next year to keep some size in the frontcourt.
The only other big that Stony Brook is losing is forward Kenan Sarvan, who was the team’s starting power forward for most of the season. The 6-foot-10 junior averaged 7.5 points per game and made the second-most three-pointers on the team. He is expected to pursue a career playing professionally overseas.
The other two departures will be Roberts and guard Tanahj Pettway. Roberts played in all 33 games and started 26 of them out of necessity, averaging 24.4 minutes per game. However, he only took 2.5 shots per game. As for Pettway, the two-way guard rose through the ranks and became the team’s sixth man after originally not being in the rotation. He sparkled on defense with a team-leading 38 steals and 1.2 steals per game, while also being the team’s fourth-leading scorer and rebounder. Both players are in the transfer portal.
With nine players returning next year and new additions on the way, Ford believes that a big turnaround in the 2023-24 season is to be expected.
“We are going to compete like crazy,” Ford said. “With the roster we have back, I think we’re about to have a really fun year. I wish the season started tomorrow.”
Mike Anderson, Kevin Yu and Nayden Villorente also contributed reporting.