NEW YORK (AP) - Jamal Smith managed to avoid the question twice with stock answers. Finally, he answered, and smiled.
Does he ever get sick of being with the same four Wagner teammates he has spent almost every day with the last four years?
``To tell you the truth, during preseason when we play pickup games all the times, you really do get sick of each other,'' he said Thursday night after the Seahawks tied the school record with their 21st win of the season, 78-67 over Fairleigh Dickinson. ``But we really are best friends and we really are close off the court as well as on it.''
For those looking for a path to the NCAA tournament, there's a route for teams from the mid- and lower-level Division I conferences: Develop a group of veteran players that relies on teamwork. Wagner is making the most of that approach.
Wagner (21-7, 14-3) has clinched the No. 2 seed behind Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference tournament. One more win sets the school record set first in 1967-68, matched by the 1978-79 team coached by current Seattle SuperSonics coach P.J. Carlesimo and then again by the 2002-03 squad under Dereck Whittenburg, the only Wagner team to reach the NCAA tournament.
Mike Deane started his fourth job as a Division I coach when Whittenburg left after that season for Fordham. Using redshirt seasons, his first two recruiting classes have melded into one that has played the bulk of the minutes in what has been the most successful season for any school in the New York area.
``This has been a good group. I like this team,'' said Deane, who led Siena to the NCAA tournament in 1989, took Marquette there in 1996 and 1997 and guided Lamar to the field of 65 in 2000. ``They really work hard. They have done a remarkable job in the weight room, getting stronger. They aren't very big but this is as good a rebounding team as I've ever had and our tallest guy is 6-7.''
That would be Durrell Vinson, a fifth-year senior and incredible leaper, who is among the nation's leaders averaging 11.2 rebounds. James Ulrich and Mark Porter, the leading scorer at 16.1 points, are fourth-year seniors. Joey Mundweiler and Smith are fourth-year juniors.
They all average between 16.1 and 9.8 points and except for Mundweiler, the 3-point specialist, are all averaging between 11.2 and 5.4 rebounds. They are inseparable off the court and Porter said that has translated into the Seahawks' success in late-game situations. They are 12-1 in games decided by five points or fewer in overtime.
``It helps a lot being out there time and time again with the same guys and knowing they have your back,'' Porter said. ``You know where everyone is going to be and you know how to come together. That give you that little bit of breathing room that you need.''
Four years ago, when these guys were still getting to know each other, they made a run to the conference tournament championship game, losing to Fairleigh Dickinson.
``As a freshman, you get there so fast, you say I'll be back next year and even a few times more but we haven't,'' Porter said. ``All of a sudden you realize you have to play every game like it's your last chance. Coach told us before this season that we had the pieces to win a championship but the pieces had to come together.''
In addition to being one of the favorites for the conference title and treasured NCAA bid, the Seahawks are enjoying the best regular season among all the Division I teams around New York City, an area that prides itself as the home of great basketball.
``We know nothing is guaranteed and we could get knocked off early and we don't want that to happen,'' Smith said. ``So we have to worry about ourselves and not other teams around here. We've worked hard to get here and we won't let each other get away from that.''
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