ALBANY — No pause is welcome, but, man, this most-recent one sure came at the wrong time for the Great Danes.
It halted the UAlbany men’s basketball team right when it had seemed to turn a corner, right as the Great Danes were starting to display consistency to go along with the potential they had demonstrated sporadically in their season’s early games.
“We know how good we can be. We know how good we’ve been,” UAlbany junior Jamel Horton said earlier this week. “So, coming out of this pause, it’s just, like, how quickly can we get back to that level?”
The first chance to show the lost time didn’t hurt their team’s trajectory comes in tonight’s 7 p.m. America East Conference game against UMass Lowell at SEFCU Arena, the first game for the Great Danes since they cruised past New Hampshire on Jan. 24 before starting up a pandemic-related pauses of in-person team activities a couple days later. UAlbany (4-4 America East, 4-6 overall) and UMass Lowell (6-6, 7-9) also play at 3 p.m. Saturday, and it’s a critical series for both teams since each is fighting to get into a top-four spot in the conference standings, an important place to be given the postseason advantages slated to be awarded to those squads.
The league’s top-two teams will be given a bye into the semifinals of the conference tournament, while the Nos. 3 and 4 teams will each host a “playoff pod,” which essentially is a mini-tournament that will see its winner advance to the semifinals. Currently, by winning percentage, UAlbany and UMass Lowell are part of a three-way tie with Stony Brook for fifth place in a conference that doesn’t appear to have a dominant team like it has in recent years with Vermont.
More than where his team is positioned in the standings, though, what UAlbany head coach Will Brown most cares about this weekend is if his team still has the “rhythm and flow” it had in winning three of four games prior to its pause. If the Great Danes have that, wins and losses will take care of themselves.
Brown said his team was “figuring it out” prior to its pause. The Great Danes had scored exactly 83 points in each of those last three wins, and the Great Danes had boosted their tempo to the fastest in conference play and its offense was tied for second with UMass Lowell in adjusted efficiency, per kenpom.com.
But the Great Danes essentially took 11 days off after their last win at New Hampshire. While they’ve had a week to get ready for their next games, those two games will be played across less than 24 hours.
Still, Brown said there are “no excuses” for his team ahead of its return to game action, and Horton said UAlbany will “definitely be prepared” mentally for the contest.
“Physically, honestly, I don’t think we’ll know [if we’re ready] until the game starts,” Horton said.
UMass Lowell senior Obadiah Noel, Brown said, is the “most dominant offensive player in our league.”
Noel, a 6-foot-4 senior, averages a league-leading 21.2 points per game. On the season, he is shooting 48.4% from the field, 33.3% from 3-point territory and is making 76.2% of the 8.7 foul shots he takes each game.
“But, this year, the thing he’s improved the most is his communication ability,” UMass Lowell head coach Pat Duquette said Friday in a phone interview.
Noel has “taken significant steps” each season, and is one of the top candidates this season to be America East Conference Player of the Year. Noel, Duquette said, had no Division I scholarship offers when his high school career had concluded — UMass Lowell recruited him based off a tournament he played in the July after his final year of high school — but he’s made himself into a star.
“He just works his tail off,” Duquette said.
UAlbany will be without two players for its games against UMass Lowell because of COVID-19 protocols.
That poses an issue for Brown, who didn’t identify those players, but suggested the Great Danes’ rotation will need to shuffle because of their absence.
“I’m anxious, as a coach, to see who is going to step up,” Brown said.
While he doesn’t exactly know which Great Danes will be on the court, Duquette said that didn’t change how his team prepared. Duquette said his club prepared as if the Great Danes will have their full roster available, and said he knows UAlbany has the depth to make up for a missing key contributor or two.
“That’s part of the reason they’re good. They have more depth, more quality guys than a lot of teams in the league,” Duquette said. “It’s almost like they have nine starters, in my mind.”