UAlbany men’s basketball looks to change tone of season

UAlbany plays Vermont Saturday at SEFCU Arena
Ahmad Clark takes a shot during an early-season game.
Ahmad Clark takes a shot during an early-season game.

ALBANY — Each time the University at Albany and Vermont men’s basketball teams met last season, the intensity within the build-up and the focus to the game play created a championship-like atmosphere.

This season is different.

While Vermont again carries with it lofty expectations, UAlbany went through an offseason roster overhaul and a bumpy non-conference season in which it lost twice as many games as it won ahead of Saturday’s 7 p.m. conference opener against the Catamounts at SEFCU Arena. During the non-conference season, UAlbany’s biggest rival was often itself, as its green nature got in the way of several games producing a favorable result for the Great Danes.

“So I don’t think our record really displays how we are as a team,” UAlbany junior Ahmad Clark said of the Great Danes’ 5-10 mark. “I think we’re better than that. We lost a lot of close games due to our inexperience, but I think everything we’ve been through will help us during the conference season.”

Last America East Conference season, what fueled UAlbany was a desire to unseat Vermont after falling to the Catamounts in the prior season’s championship game. Both programs largely returned their key players from the 2016-17 season to the 2017-18 one, leaving last season’s matchups with the makings of a natural rivalry.

“They knew exactly what to expect because the teams were pretty much the same,” UAlbany redshirt freshman Cameron Healy said. “I don’t know if we know exactly what we’re getting into with Vermont.”

That self-aware assessment explains why the Great Danes’ focus this week remained on bettering themselves rather than taking down Vermont at all costs. UAlbany wants to prove itself against Vermont, and that is a nod both to the strength of the Catamounts and the Great Danes’ understanding they don’t start conference play as a true contender.

But with a win against Vermont?

That would change.

“I guess you find out right away where you stand, how good you are and how much progress you’ve really made,” UAlbany head coach Will Brown said of the “measuring-stick” game with which his team starts conference play.

Recently, Brown has been satisfied with the growth his young team has shown. While injuries have hampered the Great Danes’ progress, Brown no longer views his freshmen starters — Brent Hank, Healy, Antonio Rizzuto and Adam Lulka, the last of whom could miss the Vermont game with a wrist injury — as “happy” just to be playing college basketball like he often referred to them as being during the season’s first batch of games.

“You don’t have to encourage them to get up in the office and watch film,” Brown said. “They’re reaching out to the coaching staff [to do that], and they’re eager to learn.”

Anxious to show what they’ve figured out, too. UAlbany won two of its final three non-conference games, and the loss in that stretch came by two points.

“I thought the last three games of the non-conference that we got better,” Brown said. “That’s what I’ve been preaching with this group. We need to continue to get better and value every day we have an opportunity to get on the court.”

“It feels like we have great momentum going into conference play,” Healy said, “and that’s really exciting. Obviously, we can’t get ahead of ourselves because we still are 5-10, but now we get a fresh start. We’re ready to compete, and we want that clean slate and a fresh start.”

UAlbany gets that starting with its conference opener against Vermont. It’s a game that won’t feature a championship-type feel to it at tipoff, but one UAlbany can use to change the outlook of its rebuilding season.

“We have to try to set the tone and send the message that we’re one of the best teams in this conference,” Clark said.

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

Categories: College Sports, Sports

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