ALBANY How can mid-major University at Albany pull off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history?
Let UAlbany head coach Will Brown count the ways.
In preparation for Friday’s NCAA Midwest Regional against second-seeded Duke at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, the Great Danes tried to turn fantasy into reality with a logical game plan against one of the nation’s perennial powers.
Brown, his staff and his players, know they will be extreme underdogs against the 27-5 Blue Devils (18 points on the Las Vegas line), but there is always hope for a little magic and a lot of luck.
“We will have to play incredibly well and better than we did all year long,” said Brown, whose 24-10 team left for Philadelphia Wednesday afternoon.
That will be difficult, especially since the Great Danes already played about the best they possibly could during the America East Conference tournament. As the fourth seed, they won three close games in one week, including upsets over top-seeded Stony Brook in the semifinals at SEFCU Arena and second-seeded Vermont at the Catamounts’ Patrick Gym in Burlington last Saturday.
The first objective for the Great Danes will be to avoid an early knockout punch at the 20,000-seat Wells Fargo Center, the same place where the Danes severely tested top-seeded Connecticut six years ago.
“We can’t turn the ball over and give Duke a chance to go for the knockout punch early,” Brown cautioned. “We can’t let them have a bunch of dunks early and get the crowd into it. We need to pull everything we can out of the magic hat.”
Another key for the Great Danes is how their “bigs” — 6-foot-10 junior center John Puk, 6-9 senior post man Blake Metcalf, 6-6 sophomore rebounding leader Sam Rowley and 6-8 junior forward Luke Devlin — handle Duke’s explosive big men, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
“Our big guys have to play out of their minds,” said Brown. “Their frontcourt is so big and so tough. We have to defend the three-point line and still find a way to stop Plumlee inside.”
Plumlee, one of the best centers in the country, produces 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Kelly, a 7-foot forward with outstanding range, has been phenomenal since missing eight weeks with a knee injury. A prodigious three-point threat, Kelly averages 14.8 points per game.
“Kelly might be the best shooter in college basketball, not just the best big man who can shoot,” praised Brown, a self-confessed basketball junkie who watches a handful of games every night on television.
Of course, Duke is not just all about its big men. The Blue Devils have a plethora of weapons, including point guard Seth Curry (16.9 ppg), son of former NBA shooting whiz Del Curry, Quinn Cook (12.5 ppg) and Rasheed Sulaimon (12.0 ppg).
Duke, coached by the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, has won four national championships and has competed in the NCAA tournament in 29 of the last 30 seasons, including 18 straight years. The Blue Devils have a 96-32 all-time record in the tournament.
“Duke is so hard to defend because they can score from five positions on the floor,” said Brown.
Throw out the X’s and O’s, and the biggest part of preparing for Duke will be the mental game. The Great Danes must believe they can win.
“We will show them some film of the game Duke played with Lehigh, when Lehigh upset them as the 15th seed last year,” said Brown. “Our guys need to have a sense that they can beat that team. I think our guys will be focused.”
Brown said his team’s senior leadership, including starters Mike Black and Jacob Iati in the backcourt and Metcalf and Jayson Guerrier off the bench, will need to calm the rest of the Great Danes down if things get rough.
“Our guys will be ready to challenge one of the best teams in the country,” said Brown. “In fact, with Ryan Kelly back in their lineup, I think Duke is the best team in the country, with Louisville second.
“I don’t think we will have any pressure on us at all. There was more pressure going to Vermont than there is on this game. The only difference is that Duke is a much tougher team. But we are playing with house money. Nobody expects us to win. We can’t just be happy to be here. We have to come out and play aggressively.”
“We’re not intimidated by Duke,” said Black, the Great Danes’ top scorer at 15 ppg and the Reggie Lewis Most Outstanding Player during the America East Conference tournament.
“We can’t go in there thinking we’re going to lose,” added Iati. “All the pressure is on them, because they’re supposed to win. Every game is different.”
Brown is a realist, but he is also a dreamer, because that is what “March Madness” is about.
“I wouldn’t mind trading spots with Coach K, but I don’t mind being the underdog,” he said with a grin.