Thursday, November 23, 2006

A look at Albany

Checked out Albany's game against Sacred Heart on Tuesday night.

Here's a story that ran in Thursday's Register that didn't make the Web, only the print.


By Brett Orzechowski
Register Staff

FAIRFIELD – Even before St. Patrick’s Day, when the rest of the country learned that the University at Albany was more than just another college in the New York state system, Will Brown knew this Sunday would absorb the collective conscience of his team and the foresight has bothered him since.

The Great Danes head coach and the Albany athletic department secured a date with the University of Connecticut before last season’s NCAA Tournament, a guarantee game now just four days away. The program will receive $55,000 for this weekend’s test at Gampel Pavilion, but Albany took on much more when it earned a No. 16 seed after winning the America East Conference title in March.

With a hint of irony, the selection committee placed Albany opposite the top-seeded Huskies. For almost 30 minutes at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, the Danes were on pace to set a tournament precedent by upending a No. 1. They were up by 12 points with 11:34 remaining. Then there was a collapse.

Now, they are playing a new season while the same expectations remain.

When Albany (2-1) makes the trip to Storrs, it will be greeted by a Gampel crowd and a much different UConn team from a season ago. The Huskies (4-0) are not the only team with a different complexion. Brown said he must be the only coach in America who thinks one game failed to secure his program’s legacy. It remains a loss. It remains UConn. And Albany’s current composition resembles nothing of a team which pushed the Huskies eight months ago.

“I knew even before the NCAA Tournament that this game was on our schedule this year and it always stayed in the back of my mind,” Brown said, “because I also knew what I would and wouldn’t have going into this game.”

Brown’s comments Tuesday night after Albany’s first loss of the season to Sacred Heart were said by a realist, one who knows his team best.

The Danes return Jamar Wilson, the America East Player of the Year who is averaging 20.7 points and 5.3 assists this season, and Brent Wilson, a third-team conference selection. After the two, the names and recognition taper off.

What the rest of the America East coaches and other prognosticators overlooked, Brown explained, was that his program lost two 1,000-point scorers to graduation, Lucious Jordan and Levi Levine, and a 7-footer, Kirsten Zoellner. All three played an important role in last year’s near miss. Still, the conference selected Albany first in its preseason coaches’ poll.

Just 34 years old and on a path to perhaps secure a major coaching job, Brown has been a quick study of the college game. Albany signed him to a contract extension through 2010-11, but in a short time he has built a program beyond respectability. The non-conference schedule reflects this. Along with the UConn game this season, the Danes also played Bucknell and Delaware to start the year at home. Both were wins against quality schools.

While mapping out the schedule, Brown thought a road game against Sacred Heart would suffice before returning to Connecticut five days later. Against Bucknell and Delaware, Albany averaged more than 4,000 fans at the Recreation and Convocation Center. During Thanksgiving break at Sacred Heart, 516 fans were treated to a Danes’ letdown and the Pioneers knocked down 12 3-pointers. Sacred Heart won handily, 90-71.

Brown said before Tuesday, he knew this would be a “trap game.” All week, his players were inundated with ticket requests for UConn and the media attention started growing a month ago. Brown’s players also knew they would play to a larger television audience than just the greater New York Capital Region this weekend.

They knew the match-up still reminds people of last year, and in the process, Sacred Heart was overlooked.

“Now, because of last year’s UConn game, we have more hype surrounding our program. So, of course, it’s now easier to focus on Albany than for us to focus on someone else,” Brown said. “So who do we focus on? A team that’s still two games away. That game (UConn) went both ways for us. You feel like you arrived. The next day, there’s a lot of extra weight.”

The figurative weight does not compensate for the literal size that Albany lacks. Beyond both Wilsons, the Danes’ scoring is limited and their defense was porous against Sacred Heart, allowing 90 points for the first time since Jan. 4, 2003, in a game against Maine.

Half of their field-goal attempts were from 3-point range and their frontcourt offense, which has been a concern of Brown’s before the season, showed little productivity. Albany’s size consists of 6-foot-7 junior starter Jimmie Covington, but beyond the forward, only two freshmen, 6-foot-9 Mike Yocum and 6-foot-11 Brett Gifford, add some depth.

Gifford did not play against the Pioneers because of illness, Brown said, but the coach added his minutes will likely increase against Huskies center Hasheem Thabeet. After that, Brown said his preseason concerns may be exposed in a game he believes has too much hype surrounding it.

His players agreed after the Sacred Heart loss, but they understand that Albany, by virtue of one game, now has a different set of standards.

“We earned that NCAA Tournament berth and we earned the right to play UConn last season,” Jamar Wilson said. “This game coming up will be no different. Their hearts beat just like ours. But we’re Albany, and people now know that. I just hope they remember that. I guess it’s our responsibility now.”

Brett Orzechowski may be reached at


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