ALBANY — With a smile, CJ Kelly admitted it “doesn’t feel” like the next game for the UAlbany men’s basketball team will be a playoff game.
And head coach Will Brown acknowledged after Sunday’s 67-59 win against Stony Brook that he’d prefer for his team to have at least a couple more regular-season games before it heads into the America East Conference postseason.
“We’ve got no choice but to be ready,” Brown said.
The Great Danes looked Sunday like a team capable of making noise in the America East playoffs, as UAlbany closed its regular season with a game that saw it maintain at least a three-possession advantage for the vast majority of the second half. A day after UAlbany stumbled to a season-worst offensive showing, the Great Danes responded with an outing that included all five of their starters registering double-digit scoring at SEFCU Arena.
“We know how good we can be,” UAlbany junior Jamel Horton said during Sunday’s post-game teleconference.
After knocking off Stony Brook (7-9 America East, 9-13 overall) in the regular-season finale for both teams, UAlbany (6-6, 6-8) earned the No. 5 seed for the conference playoffs. The Great Danes’ postseason run will start next Saturday with a 5 p.m. game against No. 8 NJIT at Hartford, with that game’s winner playing the next day against the winner of a matchup between No. 4 Hartford and No. 9 Binghamton. The winner from the Hartford “playoff pod” will advance to the following weekend’s semifinals.
NJIT was the only conference foe UAlbany swept this season, and Horton termed Sunday’s game against Stony Brook as a “step in the right direction” for a Great Danes team still trying to find consistency — if that’s possible to find — during this stop-and-start season played amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. While the America East’s top teams — UMBC and Vermont — will have a bye for the first weekend of the conference playoffs, Horton said it’s a positive for the Great Danes that they get to keep to a playing-every-weekend schedule.
“The last thing we would want from now on is another break in the action,” Horton said. “I think we’ve had enough of those.”
Brown said the series against Stony Brook represented a “huge weekend” for Kelly and graduate student Jarvis Doles, who missed the previous weekend’s games — UAlbany’s first action since Jan. 24 — because of COVID-19 protocols. Both starters needed time on the court to get themselves right before the postseason, which was abruptly moved up a week just days ago, and the Great Danes face one win-or-go-home game after another.
Kelly had a game-high 18 points Sunday, while Doles, Horton, graduate student Kellon Taylor and junior Antonio Rizzuto each had 10. Kelly also added nine rebounds, and said he felt better Sunday than he did Saturday, and he’s hoping all the Great Danes can continue to develop a rhythm this week during practice.
“As long as we get to play and keep our chemistry up, we’ll be fine,” Kelly said.
Stony Brook head coach Geno Ford said he sees no “heavy favorite” in the upcoming America East playoffs.
“There’s a couple good teams that may be a little bit better than the pack,” Ford said, “but it is minimal.”
Ford said he sees “six, seven” teams capable of earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and that he “wouldn’t be shocked” if the Great Danes made a run in the playoffs given their offensive firepower when they’re clicking.
“They’re plenty good enough to do that,” Ford said.
Brown said his team will have “tremendous focus” as it prepares for the postseason. The veteran coach said he won’t dwell on the win-or-else nature of the playoffs, but knows his veteran group doesn’t need him to do that.
“You don’t want to talk about it too much because you don’t want your guys to go into that game tight,” Brown said, “but the reality of it is: you win, you advance — you lose, you go home.”