WTNH)–Bristol native Steve Pikiell knows the ugly side of March Madness.
He was there in 1990, when his “Dream Season” Huskies watched as their dream was cut down at the buzzer, their incredible and unlikely first shot at national prominence snatched away at the last second by %^$%&! Christian Laettner.
He was also there in 2015, when his upstart Stony Brook program watched as its fifth straight “dream season” was cut down at the buzzer, their incredible and unlikely first shot at national prominence snatched away at the last second by an Australian guy named (#$^%!) Peter Hooley.
One shining moment, indeed.
The 48-year-old former St. Paul High School star has accomplished a lot in his basketball career, which includes in-state coaching stops at UConn, Central Connecticut State, Wesleyan and Yale, and a stop at George Washington under UConn assistant Karl Hobbs.
His coaching start mirrors that of Jim Calhoun, the man who gave him his first job as an assistant on UConn’s staff following the Dream Season heartbreak in 1990. Both took over at unheralded schools in the ancillary America East Conference, Calhoun at Northeastern and Pikiell at Stony Brook, a steadily-growing sea-grant state school with an expanding enrollment of 25,000.
Under Pikiell, Stony Brook has transformed from one of the worst programs in Division 1 to an America East powerhouse. The Seawolves have finished either first or second in the league in six out of the last seven seasons, including five straight. This year, they’re 23-6, 14-2 in conference, and will enter the America East tournament as the No. 1 seed again.
In the time since he’s arrived, the school’s athletic programs have flourished. The baseball team made an incredible run to the College World Series in 2012. The football team has made two trips to the NCAA playoffs, winning games each time.
The only thing Stony Brook men’s basketball hasn’t accomplished is getting to the NCAA Tournament, and it’s a goal that’s been as painfully elusive as a Super Bowl title for the Buffalo Bills in the 1990’s.
In 2010, the top-seeded Seawolves lost to Boston University, 70-63, in the conference semifinals.
In 2012, top-seeded Stony Brook lost to Vermont, 51-43, in the championship game.
In 2013, the top-seeded Seawolves lost to Albany, 61-59, in the conference semifinals.
In 2014, second-seeded Stony Brook lost to Albany, 69-60, in the championship game.
In 2015, top-seeded Stony Brook lost to Albany, 51-50, on that ridiculous game-winning shot at the buzzer, in the championship game.
“I always tell people, we’ll get there when we’re good enough to get there,” Pikiell said in a phone interview on Monday.
“You have to keep getting up to the plate to hit a home run, and fortunately, we’ve been able to get up to the plate a few times.”
For schools like Stony Brook, reaching the NCAA Tournament is their national championship, and the only way to get there is by navigating a brutal, often cruel single-elimination conference tournament that doesn’t care how many games you win during the regular season and cares only about how you’re playing on a few fateful days in March.
“Some schools, they know they’re in the NCAA Tournament when they get on the bus, at the Big East tournament [or wherever],” Pikiell said. “It’s not that way for us.”
This year’s squad ripped off 18 straight wins from December 17 to February 17, but of course, they’ve lost twice in their last three games, hopefully not a bad omen for what’s coming in the next two weeks. The conference tournament begins on March 2 and ends March 12.
“There are a lot of things that go into it, obviously you have to have luck, you have to be healthy, hopefully things go your way,” Pikiell said. “I like this team. We’ve got good kids, they can play, they’re unselfish. We’ll take our chances.”