Trying to take the next step

More news about: Oswego State
Oswego State with SUNYAC trophy
It's all smiles when you're holding the trophy, but Oswego State is back at work to try to get back to the Sweet 16.
Oswego State athletics photo

By Andrew Lovell

Games played in March have become a regular occurrence for the Oswego State men's basketball team. The path to those games, however, hasn't gotten any easier over the years.

The Lakers (21-6, 15-3) finished the regular season atop the SUNYAC standings, and pushed through grueling back-to-back victories against Buffalo State (84-83 in overtime) and SUNY Oneonta (75-70) this past weekend to win their third conference tournament in the last six seasons. The win against Oneonta clinched the Lakers' third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, and their fifth in the past seven seasons. It's a sustained run of success that few programs in the country can match.

"With every year that you are able to compete at that level," coach Jason Leone said, "your goals and the bar continues to get raised."

To accomplish what Oswego State has in recent seasons is impressive on its own. But to do it playing in an increasingly competitive SUNYAC is significant. Last season, Oswego State was one of three SUNYAC teams, along with regular-season champion Plattsburgh State and conference-tournament champion Cortland, to reach the NCAA Tournament. Plattsburgh and Cortland lost in the first and second rounds, respectively, but Oswego advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

It marked the fourth time since the 2010-11 season that multiple SUNYAC teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament. In three of those instances, one SUNYAC team reached the Sweet 16 -- Oswego State in 2016, Plattsburgh in 2014 and Buffalo State in 2011. While programs like Oswego and Plattsburgh have had steady success, all 10 of the schools in the conference have been in contention at different times over the past near-decade.

Brian Sortino, who scored 48 points in a conference semifinal win vs. Buffalo State, continues to be the main man for Oswego State.
Oswego State athletics photo

Leone, who inherited a team coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance when he took over as Oswego's head coach in 2011, believes the SUNY system's combination of varied areas of academic study and more cost-friendly tuition prices have attracted more students.

"The cost of attendance here isn't as expensive as a lot of places," Leone said. "It's allowed our league to get very strong, not just at the top, but we have very good balance in our league right now."

The balance in the conference is strong, but the scale still tips toward the Lakers. Three straight NCAA Tournament appearances will put a target on your back. Such a target, however, is of little concern to the Oswego players.

Leone was welcomed into a team with a culture of winning, something that's often lacking in programs searching for new head coaches. Instead of pushing to build a culture surrounding wins, an entity Oswego was already familiar with under its two previous head coaches, Adam Stockwell (2009-2011) and Kevin Broderick (1996-2009), Leone focused on less discernible goals.

"We try not to talk about tangible results with the guys," Leone said. "We try to talk about building habits throughout the year. ... Our goal every year is we want to try to build the best team we can, in terms of togetherness and being connected and playing for one another."

"Once you start talking about the wins and losses, that's when sometimes pressure and expectations can build up," Leone added. "That sometimes can be detrimental, in my opinion."

Leone is great admirer of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who is one of the most notable proponents and practitioners of "process" thinking, which stresses focusing only on the task at hand. Twenty wins, a conference title, an NCAA Tournament berth -- those types of tangible goals might be ideal for some teams. Every program is different, and what works for some won't work for others. Leone said his players accept that wins and losses are out of their control, so they focus on what they can control -- their dedication, communication and effort.

"They understand that you can sometimes play really well and do all the things that a coach asks you to do and that you want to do well," Leone said, "and that doesn't entitle you victory."

This selfless, grind-it-out mentality is reflected in all of Oswego's players, and it starts with standout senior Brian Sortino. The dynamic 6-2 guard leads the Lakers in scoring (21.6 points per game), minutes (37.4 per game), assists (4.6) and 3-pointers made (78), among other categories. The three-time all-SUNYAC performer has blossomed from a shy, reserved freshman to an accomplished leader and one of the program's most decorated players of all-time.

Sortino has been flanked this season by a pair of junior transfers in guards Ian Schupp and Jamir Ferebee. Schupp, who played with Oswego in 2014-15, transferred to Oneonta for his sophomore season before returning to Oswego this season. Ferebee, an all-Skyline Conference player at the College of Mount Saint Vincent last season, overcame a slow start in adjusting to Oswego to become a key starter down the stretch.

"It's really hard for transfers to come in," Leone said. "It's not something that we make a living on in recruiting, but being a state school, that is something that happens a little more in our league than maybe in some other leagues around the country."

Schupp and Ferebee, along with 6-6 sophomore center Tyler Pierre, who transferred from the recently closed Dowling College on Long Island, are three of nine players on Oswego's roster new to the program this season. And yet, the team was operating as smoothly as a veteran-laden team by midseason, as it won 10 of its first 11 games coming out of the mid-semester break.

Leone credits his senior class -- Sortino; 6-10 center Mykelle Krecko, a 2015 transfer from Le Moyne; 6-5 swing forward Keith Tyson; and reserve guards Matt Crockett and Pat Caruso -- for setting the tone with its leadership. Crockett and Caruso, in particular, have made lasting impacts beyond their limited time in games.

"At our level, if things aren't happening by the time guys get to be juniors, a lot of times they'll either step away from the game or sometimes they can be malcontents," Leone said. "These guys are the antithesis of that."

Oswego faces Scranton, a team making its fourth consecutive NCAA appearance, in the first round Friday at Williams. The focus at Oswego isn't only on winning, but it's something the Lakers have done quite often over the last seven seasons. The time for reflection on the team's sustained success, however, will have to wait.

"We don't want to talk about things that have happened until the whole story is done," Leone said. "I don't think it's fair to [the players], and we don't want to reflect on things that are still going on."