It’s a place where the UAlbany men’s basketball program has severely struggled in recent years, which makes the Great Danes no different from any other America East Conference team.
But this year’s trip to Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington to take on Vermont will certainly provide a more friendly opportunity for a UAlbany team looking to claim its first win.
“The crowd there,” UAlbany head coach Will Brown said, “responds to every basket like it’s a game winner.”
And that crowd, which regularly fills the cozy venue that holds a few thousand fans, won’t be at this weekend’s games when UAlbany (0-2, 0-3) visits Vermont (2-2, 2-2), since no fans are allowed at the game because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. While Vermont — despite that .500 record — is still Vermont and is a strong opponent regardless of where it’s playing, Catamounts head coach John Becker said earlier this week that it was noticeable last weekend when his club hosted NJIT how playing on his home court didn’t mean what it did in past years.
“It’s a huge difference,” Becker said. “It just felt weird.”
He added: “It’s certainly an advantage for the road team to be able to come in a gym and there’s no hostility.”
UAlbany, which plays at 6 tonight at Vermont, hasn’t won in Burlington since 2016. That year was the last, too, that saw UAlbany beat Vermont anywhere. The Catamounts have won the last nine meetings between the teams, sweeping the Great Danes in four consecutive seasons, a stretch that started with Vermont taking all three meetings — including the conference championship game — between the teams during the 2016-17 campaign.
While Vermont, picked to win the America East, has stumbled a bit by its lofty standards to start its season — “Obviously, that’s a lot of losses,” Vermont senior Stef Smith said of the Catamounts’ 2-2 start — UAlbany couldn’t turn any of its three halftime leads into a win in the Great Danes’ opening games.
It’s unclear, too, how much of Brown’s roster will be available for the head coach to utilize this weekend in back-to-back games in Burlington. The availability of starters Cameron Healy (oblique) and Adam Lulka (nose/head) is unclear, as is the status of key reserve Jamel Horton (back) and Will Amica (head), the latter a freshman that Brown said would likely make his Great Danes debut this weekend if he is able to play.
Regardless of how many Great Danes are able to play this weekend, it won’t be easy for UAlbany to secure its first win of the season. While Vermont split each of its opening conference series, Brown doesn’t see the Catamounts as a squad likely to keep playing .500 basketball in conference play.
“I think everyone in our league needs to be really cautious of the mentality that Vermont has fallen back to the pack,” Brown said. “I do think there’s more parity than ever in our league, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s upsetting that we can’t stay healthy and get the time we need with our core group playing together.”
While Vermont doesn’t have a dominant force like it had in recent years with Anthony Lamb — the 2019 and 2020 conference player of the year — it has Smith, a senior “who is as good a guard as any in our league,” while junior forward Ryan Davis is averaging 24.5 points per game after missing the Catamounts’ first two games.
Brown liked the way his team defended in the half-court setting in its first three games, but the Great Danes need to score more consistently so they can set up their half-court defense. While playing at the America East’s fastest tempo through this season’s early weeks, per kenpom.com’s database, UAlbany ranks No. 9 in the 10-team league in offensive efficiency. Brown wants the Great Danes to play even a bit quicker, and increase their offensive opportunities in transition.
With that goal in mind, UAlbany used an abbreviated shot clock — 18 seconds off makes, 15 seconds off misses — during practice scrimmaging this week.
“What that has done is force us to run harder, to push the ball more consistently, and execute better and quicker,” Brown said.
Another focus this week, Brown said, has been making sure his team’s confidence is at a high level.
“When you’re 0-3, what you have to do is make sure the guys understand how close we were to being 3-0,” Brown said. “And that’s not ‘coach talk.’ We led at halftime of all three games.”