After years of near-misses, Stony Brook, now led by Jameel Warney, hopes to punch its first ticket ever to the Big Dance.
You may remember the heroics of Albany’s Peter Hooley in last season’s America East tournament championship game. The Australian junior’s game-winning three-pointer on March 14, 2015, a month and a half after he lost his mother to cancer, capped a stirring late comeback by the Great Danes and gave them a wild and emotional win in the final seconds.
The team on the other side of that elation was Stony Brook, and Hooley’s shot crushed the dreams of a program that was 1.6 seconds away from its first-ever NCAA tournament berth. A year earlier, Albany had denied the Seawolves their first trip to the Big Dance with a nine-point win in the conference title game. In 2011 and 2012, Stony Brook also made the conference title game, only to be eliminated by Vermont and Boston University, respectively. For the past five seasons, the Seawolves have come tantalizingly close to punching a ticket for the Big Dance only to be eliminated at the last minute.
Is this the year Stony Brook finally breaks through? The Seawolves are making their case so far. They have been steamrolling their way through the America East, winning by an average margin of 19.4 points en route to an 11–0 start in conference play. They have the nation’s longest winning streak, at 16 games. And with just five games left on their schedule, they have a legitimate chance of going undefeated in the America East and nabbing the No. 1 seed for its tournament. But as Stony Brook has painfully learned in recent years, no regular-season performance guarantees that you’ll be crowned. And Albany, which has won the conference tournament three years in a row, is once again its biggest obstacle in the path toward the tournament.
Senior forward Jameel Warney, the reigning America East player of the year and defensive player of the year, leads the Seawolves. Stony Brook actually returned its top seven scorers from last year’s 23–12 team, including senior guard Carson Puriefoy. Together, Warney and Puriefoy are an inside-outside dynamic duo, with Warney averaging 18.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and Puriefoy averaging 14.3 points and 3.2 assists. Then you add senior forward Rayshaun McGrew and junior guard Ahmad Walker, who both average 10.9 points and over six rebounds, and it’s no wonder Stony Brook is dominating the conference. In fact, all four of Warney, Puriefoy, McGrew and Walker are part of the five-player America East all-kenpom.com team, a stunning monopolization.
But Warney drives the ship, as evidenced by the fact that he is No. 10 on kenpom.com’s national player of the year metric. Warney is the only mid-major player to make the 10-person ranking, and his offensive rating of 129.7 is No. 11 out of all Division I players. In a win on Monday night, the senior trounced Hartford for a career-high 36 points on 16-of-18 shooting, adding 13 rebounds for good measure.
Behind the strength of Warney and its experienced core, Stony Brook is No. 62 in RPI and No. 48 on kenpom.com. It played a very tough nonconference schedule but was able to grab a pair of top-100 wins, over Princeton and Hofstra, and took Vanderbilt to overtime on the road.
SI.com’s latest Bracketology has Stony Brook as a No. 14 seed—a seed line that has made a lot of noise in recent NCAA tournaments (two No. 14 seeds upset No. 3 seeds in 2015). But to get there, the Seawolves are going to have to exorcise their America East tournament demons. This is the last chance for many of the team’s leaders to make school history and shrink the list of programs that have never played under the bright lights of March Madness by one.
Player to watch: Stephen F. Austin senior forward Thomas Walkup
The Lumberjacks didn’t have the nonconference season they were hoping for, starting the year 7–5, but they’re clicking now. Led by Walkup, Stephen F. Austin has all 10 of its Southland Conference contests and leads the league by two games. The 6'4" senior is averaging 17.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game, while shooting 58.9% from the field. In a win over Houston Baptist on Saturday, Walkup poured in 35 points and 12 rebounds on 13-of-22 shooting. Two days later, he followed it with a 30-point, 10-rebound performance on 13-of-17 shooting in a win over Northwestern State. With Walkup leading the way, the Lumberjacks look poised to make their third straight NCAA tournament.
Game of the week: UC Irvine at Hawaii, Friday, 1 a.m. ET
The Big West race heats up with a battle for sole possession of first place in the conference on Friday, when UC Irvine travels to Honolulu to face the Rainbow Warriors. This will be the first of two meetings between the Big West leaders, and both teams still have to play the conference’s third place team, Long Beach State, once more. It’s an opportunity for a top-100 win for both teams and will leave one with an inside track for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Both Hawaii and UC Irvine have a strong defense, and the X-factor could be Rainbow Warriors 6'11" star forward Stefan Jankovic going against the Anteaters towering line, which includes 7'6" Mamadou Ndiaye.
Stat of the week: 46
That’s how many points Eastern Michigan junior guard Raven Lee scored in a 94–69 win over Miami (Ohio) last week ... and he did it in just 24 minutes off the bench. Lee tied the national game-high for points in a game this season, joining Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Iona’s A.J. English (Hield’s came in a triple overtime game against Kansas). Lee shot 9 of 11 from three, 11 of 16 from the floor and 15 of 16 from the free-throw line. Talk about efficiency.