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Written by TOM ROCK (Newsday STAFF WRITER)
Little Rams think big, as in NCAAs
Erik Smiles admitted the thought has crossed his mind. "How could it not?" the Farmingdale State coach asked. "It's the ultimate goal."
That would be the wonder of a trip to the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament with a Skyline Conference championship. It's the lofty agenda of each of the 11 teams in the conference, but especially audacious considering Farmingdale's roots.
Just a few years ago it competed - with much success - in the NJCAA. In 2000 it became a provisional member of the NCAA, making the jump from two-year to four-year school and trying to create a new identity. Last year was its first in the Skyline and Farmingdale made it to the tournament semifinal.
And this year the Rams (11-5, 8-0) are in first place, a status enunciated by last night's 72-45 win over Maritime.
"I'm surprised," junior forward Kenny McMillan said of the speed with which the Rams have ascended. He remembered his freshman year, when he wasn't playing much and the team was struggling as an independent. "We got slapped around a lot," he said, "but I always figured it would help us out in the long run."
McMillan is Farmingdale's best player, and he scored 25 last night. When he was playing high school basketball at All Hallows in the Bronx, McMillan said he'd never heard of Farmingdale. That's been the biggest obstacle to recruiting, according to Smiles and former Farmingdale coach Bill Musto, who guided the transition.
"The name is starting to get out there," Smiles said. "We're making a nice identity with the city's Catholic league and some junior colleges. Coaches are starting to get to know us."
"It's a different sell," Musto said of the recruiting switch. "As a junior college we sold a dream of a scholarship and the chance to go to a higher level."
Smiles said the biggest boost to recruiting was joining the Skyline. It adds credibility to the program, and an annual chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament. "What could we tell a kid when we were an independent?" Smiles asked. "We'll play 25 games and maybe, maybe we'll get a chance to go to the ECACs?"
Smiles, 26, grew up around the Farmingdale program as his father, Michael, is a biology professor at the college. He said this is his dream job, and it's shaping up to be a dream season. But it's far from over.
"There are no banners on these walls," he said, pointing to the bareness of Nold Hall. "They don't give you a banner for going 8-0."