The first round matchup between Stony Brook and Illinois is one of contrasts. The America East team is thrilled to play the mighty Illini, and the home crowd will push its heroes to excellence. The Illini are a number one seed in the NIT, but they are emotionally distraught and would rather be in the NCAA Tournament. Stony Brook has overachieved this year, while the Illini have underachieved.
Seawolves coach Steve Pikiell says his whole 25,000 student campus, located on the shores of Long Island, is buzzing over the game in its partially refurbished 5,000 seat gymnasium.
"We're thrilled about an opportunity to extend our season. It is a huge honor for us. This is our first postseason bid. We're ten years in Division I. We're a young school, only 50 years old. Forty of those 50 years we were Division III, so it's our first Division I bid. We couldn't be more excited to host the Fighting Illini program and all the tradition, tremendous coach and players.
"Our students are excited, and we're selling a lot of tickets right now. This is a huge opportunity, nothing our community has ever felt. The name and tradition of Illinois basketball is exciting around here. Students are lined up outside my office right now getting their student lottery tickets. It's an ESPN game, and we haven't been on ESPN. So a lot of firsts for our university. Our community is very involved."
In describing his team, Pikiell begins with his star Muhammad El-Amin, a junior college transfer senior who leads the team with a 16.7 scoring average.
"We have the Player Of The Year in the conference in Muhammad El-Amin, who's from Lansing, Michigan and very familiar with the Big 10. Muhammad has scored 1000 points in two years. He can really score any place in the country. He's got good size, especially for our league. He's about 6'-5", 6'-6" and 235 pounds. He's got a role on our team to score, and he does a real good job with that."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber describes him as one who can cause problems for his defense.
"El-Amin is a very good player. He's got size, strength, he can get to the basket and to the lane. He shoots some threes too. He's a tough matchup for anybody.
"He's a talented young man. I think he could play in the Big 10. He's gonna wheel and deal. I'm not gonna say (he reminds of) Evan Turner, but he's a swing man that can get to the basket. He'll spin on you, he handles well enough, and yet he's shooting 35% from three and 41% in the league."
Pikiell's team is balanced. He has five other players averaging between 7.7 and 13.6 points per game. Guards Bryan Dougher (6'-1", 185) and Chris Martin (6'-1", 223) both average double figures. 6'-7", 250 pound sophomore Dallis Joyner comes in at 8.1 ppg, followed by Tommy Brenton (6'-5", 215) and Desmond Adedeji (6'-10", 305).
"We've surrounded him with good players that do a lot of the other things," Pikiell says. "We're balanced, we dive for loose balls. We're a team that can shoot the basketball. We've got some guys that can score. We've had 8 different leading scorers this year on an 11 man roster.
"We have some New York City guards that get to the basket. We got to the foul line second most in our league, so we attack the rim a little bit. We have the leading rebounder in our conference in Tommy Brenton. We'll be very undersized for Big 10 standards, but we play very good defense. We get up and down a little bit, and we press a little bit."
Weber is impressed with their play.
"Their three point shooting in the league is an impressive 42%. And they have one young man that's shooting almost 51% from three. If you're shooting in a gym by yourself, that's a pretty good percent.
"They're pretty good with their guard play, so they'll push it. They have quickness, and they have a variety of guys that can get to the basket."
He says the Seawolves play good defense.
"We'll have a size advantage, but they're a good defensive team. They play a packed man defense and rotate a little bit of zone."
Pikiell is highly impressed with the Illini, with our without coachspeak. What problems do the Illini pose for the Seawolves?
"Size, (Demetri) McCamey, a lot of things. We have our work cut out for us. We have been a team that has probably overachieved this season, and I know our guys will be excited. Richardson I think is terrific as a scorer.
"McCamey is gonna cause problems. Our guards aren't good sized, and our front court guys aren't 7'-1" and 6'-9". They pose a lot problems and they're well coached. I think Coach Weber is tremendous."
According to Weber, the Illini's biggest problem will be rekindling their fire to play at a peak level after the traumatic weekend.
"The big challenge is getting our kids refocused. For their campus, it's gonna be an exciting atmosphere. It sounds like they're gonna fill up their arena, and you know they're gonna play with a lot of emotion.
"This is not a team that will go down easy. They don't have great size, but they are stronger kids. They're gonna get after us."
Weber is doing his best as a team cheerleader. There is still much to play for, if only they will realize it in time.
"We have an opportunity to play for a championship and play five extra games. To continue what we did in the Big 10 tournament, and then lead into even greater success next season.
"You have the majority of your guys back, guys that have played a lot of minutes, so this is almost a preseason tournament for next season. It's obviously not what we wanted, but it is there, and it's an opportunity that we need to grab onto to help us prepare, to get better for the future."
If they can somehow win on the road in a snake pit gym, they can come home for the 2nd and hopefully 3rd round. Winning those two games would put them into Madison Square Garden for a Final Four with three other quality teams. Playing there would be excellent preparation for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic scheduled for the same venue to begin the 2010-11 season.
However, a loss would leave a bad tase in everyone's mouth, and bad memories that cannot be erased until fall at the earliest. Weber reminds everyone of the consequences of poor play.
"It will not be an easy game by any means. It's gonna be a tough contest, and I hope our guys realize it. Our kids have to get up. If we felt sad Sunday, we could really feel sad Wednesday night if we don't have the right mental approach."