In America East Race, Vermont vs. Stony Brook Looms LargePosted by Tommy Lemoine on January 24th, 2014
Stony Brook entered 2013-14 with a combined 49-15 record in conference play over the previous four seasons, a stretch which included three regular season titles and a few trips to the NIT — a categorical success by most measures. But for Steve Pikiell and the Seawolves, there’s one ever-important goal that has continuously eluded them despite all that winning, often in heartbreaking fashion: a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Odd things tend to happen in a league that rewards the highest remaining seed in its conference championship game home court advantage. And that is why Stony Brook’s tilt against fellow-undefeated Vermont tonight looms large in the team’s quest to go Dancing — the top seed matters in the America East.
Based on tangibles alone, the Seawolves are probably the most talented team in the conference, featuring a stable of excellent guards and one supremely skilled, load of a big man in sophomore Jameel Warney. The 6’8’’, 280-pound center is almost unguardable when he gets the ball on the low block, either using his size to back down defenders or finding buckets by utilizing his wide range of post moves, the soft-touch baby hook being among his favorites. With any one of team’s backcourt studs able to attack the basket — Dave Coley and Anthony Jackson the senior leaders, Carson Puriefoy the breakout sophomore — or run the pick-and-roll with Warney (who also possesses great hands, mind you), Stony Brook has a clear personnel advantage over just about every other league opponent. Indeed, Pikiell’s group would probably be the standalone favorite this season if it weren’t for one area where it might have a meaningful disadvantage, especially against Vermont: experience.
That’s not to say the Seawolves don’t have guys who have been around for a while—again, Coley and Jackson are veterans—but the Catamounts take “seasoned” to a whole other level, boasting the fifth-most experienced squad in the entire country punctuated by a starting five made up completely of seniors. They are battle-tested and have won big games in the past, having spoiled Stony Brook’s superb American East campaign in the league championship just two seasons ago. One of Vermont’s most accomplished starters, Brian Voelkel, is also one of the most unique players in all of college basketball and among the best in the league. As a 6’6’’ forward he rebounds like a big-bodied center and assists (and scores) like a pass-first point guard, averaging 6.7 points, 8.6 boards and 5.8 assists per game. There are very few players like him — in a recent outing against UMBC, Voelkel finished with a rare two-point, nine-assist, 10-rebound, four-steal stat line — and his ability to draw fouls on limited shots serves him well. In fact, he maintains the best free throw rate in the nation, so the fact that his percentage from the stripe has improved from 52.4 percent in the first 10 games to 85.3 percent over the last nine can only be good for the Catamounts. Clancy Rugg and Sandro Carissimo lead the team in scoring at over 13 points per game apiece, and John Becker’s crew is notably deep — eight different guys average around 15 minutes a night. Perhaps most importantly for Vermont is the fact that it’s on a roll, winners of seven straight after almost upsetting Harvard in December. Oh, and in case anyone has forgotten, remember what the team almost pulled off against Duke back in November?
So here is the situation: Tonight on ESPNU, these two teams — both talented and experienced — square off in game that will go a long way in determining the America East champion. If Stony Brook holds serve on its home court, it will likely carry the conference advantage into the rubber match at Vermont in late February. If the Catamounts win, they get a huge leg up over the Seawolves and would have a real chance to put the league away in their own gym. Yes, there are other conference opponents that could mess things up, but with Vermont and Stony Brook sitting at 97th and 107th, respectively, in the Pomeroy rankings and no other America East squad cracking the top 225 (and five of the nine teams ranked #300 or worse), the chances of many upsets, if any at all, are surprisingly slim. Albany and Hartford will probably present the toughest tests.
For Pikiell and his team, the end game is simple: Win the regular season league title, take care of business in the neutral-court conference tournament games and clinch a trip to the Big Dance by winning at home in the America East championship. Anything less would likely be considered a disappointment, which shows you just how far the veteran coach has taken the program. Vermont, meanwhile, has similar goals and knows what it takes to reach them. Tonight’s budding rivalry contest is a crucial obstacle in those pursuits and could help decide which team achieves its ultimate objective come March.