ALBANY — Will Brown has been here for coming up on 18 seasons, while Jamion Christian is the new guy in town.
Other than a text here and there between them, Monday’s Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser at the Albany Capital Center offered the UAlbany men’s basketball head coach and his Siena counterpart a chance to rub elbows, do some schmoozing for a worthy cause and get to know each other a little better.
There’s so much that goes into being a Division I basketball coach, and in this market, where the Great Danes and Saints are separated by just eight miles, it extends a little further by way of public functions like this and the Real Men Wear Pink event at which Brown and Christian had time for a conversation.
Where they won’t be interacting — for the first time in 18 years — is on the basketball court.
Christian arrives in Loudonville just in time for the (perhaps temporary) demise of the Albany Cup series between the schools that Siena dominated for the first half and UAlbany dominated for the second.
Although the programs have pretty consistently exhibited mutual respect for each other — the public verbal feud between Brown and Jimmy Patsos in 2016 notwithstanding — there was also always some delicious tension in the air for the Albany Cup, especially among the respective fan bases.
For the foreseeable future, Christian won’t get to experience that, but the rivalry isn’t dead yet, and the 36-year-old Christian said he has a profound appreciation for it. There certainly was a standard message when he talked to former Siena coaches about the job and the basketball landscape here.
“It was ‘Beat Albany,'” Christian said with a laugh.
“I just think it’s other people around both programs that want both programs to go oh-and-30,” Brown said. “I think when both teams are good, it’s good for the area. I think it’s more enjoyable for the media. Where else can two programs get so much attention, especially non-Power-5 and non-BCS programs? I try to explain to our players every year how fortunate they are.”
Both teams are in a state of flux, Siena by virtue of the coaching change from Patsos to Christian, and Albany because of roster turnover, most notably the transfer of its two stars, Joe Cremo and David Nichols.
The two schools couldn’t manage to keep the Albany Cup going, over the issue of whether the game would rotate to UAlbany’s much smaller SEFCU Arena, but some of the components of a traditional rivalry remain.
“We played them once out in Dayton in the NCAA Tournament [when Christian was at Mount St. Mary’s], but other than that, I really didn’t know him very well,” Brown said. “I’ve had a chance to spend some time with him. He’s a good guy. He brings a lot of energy to that program over there, and as I’ve said for the longest time, every year I root for them but one game, when they play us. So now I guess I get to root for them every game.”
“The rivalry with Albany is huge,” Christian said. “The Capital District deserves that game, and we’ll keep trying to work towards it and try to build it in, and I know we’ll continue to have conversations about how to work that in. It’s a great game, Will Brown does a great job with his program and we’re going to do a great job with our program at Siena. It’s a worthy conversation every year.
So, in absence of the Albany Cup, the rivalry will be relegated to social media among the fans.
The coaches, meanwhile, have enough to concern themselves with just getting their teams ready for the season, which opens for both on Nov. 6.
“I wish them nothing but the best, and I hope they do well,” Brown said. “The majority of my focus and energy will be for me to find a way for this team to continue to win 20-plus games and put us in a good position late in the year to have a chance to win the America East. I’m probably more energized than I have been in a long time because of the unknown and all of the youth in our program right now. I’d be worried if the talent wasn’t there.”
“He hasn’t offered me an awful lot of advice. And I respect his gamesmanship,” Christian said. “I did have a chance to speak with all the former Siena coaches, and they gave me a great level of advice on things to consider and to work on, and people to know. The history doesn’t always tell you what your future is, but it can give you a snapshot of how good things can be and also how bad things can be.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of getting our program back to the top.”
THE WRIGHT STUFF
Second-year Washington head coach Mike Hopkins, a former Syracuse player and long-time assistant to Jim Boeheim, served as the Coaches vs. Cancer special guest and was given the annual Inspiration Award.
One of the sophomores on his Huskies team is former Albany Academy star Hameir Wright, who apparently has added 25 pounds of muscle to his frame.
Hopkins said he expects Wright to see increased playing time after averaging 14.9 minutes in 33 games as a freshman.
“He’s a guy — Nahziah Carter, another guy from New York — who learned a lot,” Hopkins said. “They now know our defense. Offensively, they understand what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot.
“But Hameir has really improved his open jump shooting, he’s a great passer, he makes others around him better, and when you have a veteran team coming back, that’s what you need. He rebounds, blocks shots, makes shots … he’s going to play a lot of minutes.”
Wright and Carter, from Bishop Kearney High in Rochester, were also Albany City Rocks teammates.