In their own way, each of the four men’s basketball teams playing this weekend at Chase Arena in West Hartford, Connecticut has a case to make that it’ll be the one advancing to the following weekend’s America East Conference semifinals.
Host Hartford (No. 4 seed, 11-8 overall) is the favorite, by seed, plus is playing at its venue where it won seven of eight games this season.
There’s UAlbany (No. 5, 6-8), a veteran-laden program that has shown, in spurts, that its ceiling is as high as anyone in the league.
NJIT (No. 8, 7-11) is the newest team in the America East, and recorded some of the biggest wins of any team in the conference. NJIT is the only team this season to beat both UMBC and Vermont — the league’s top-two seeds, which have byes to the semifinals — and is responsible for Hartford’s only home loss.
Then, there’s Binghamton (No. 9, 4-13), which possesses a rough record, but has won three of its last four games.
It all makes for an interesting mini-tournament this weekend, which represents a first (postseason) step toward potentially earning a spot in the NCAA tournament for each club.
“We stub our toe, we’re not ready to play, we don’t have a sense of urgency — that hope, that dream, it ends,” UAlbany head coach Will Brown said. “Right away.”
Hartford and Binghamton play Saturday at 2 p.m, while UAlbany and NJIT are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. The winners will play against each other Sunday at 3 p.m.
UAlbany defeated NJIT in both regular-season matchups between the teams. The Great Danes won each of those games relatively comfortably, but know a postseason matchup will be different.
“And we understand that,” graduate student Jarvis Doles said earlier this week. “And we have to understand that to be successful a third time against them.”
Doles noted that the Great Danes “were very unselfish in our games against NJIT,” and that needs to stay the same this weekend. Beyond sharing the ball, Brown said his team needs to be attacking the rim rather than settling for jumpers.
“We can’t come to the first media timeout and we’re 1 for 6 from the floor and we’re 0 for 4 from 3,” Brown said. “We’ve got to have that aggressive, attacking mindset early and often, and I think we’ll be OK.”
Hartford defeated Binghamton twice during the regular season, including one game by 20 points. Hartford head coach John Gallagher called Binghamton the “hottest team in the league” because of its recent play, but expects playing at home to benefit his club.
“We’re 7-1 at home, so it’s a huge advantage that we have a chance to host this weekend,” Gallagher said. “So I think it helps us a lot. We love playing here and we’re excited about the weekend.”
So, too, is Binghamton after the way it closed out its regular season with a pair of double-digit wins against NJIT. Even as the No. 9 seed, Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey said his team believes it can win what many of the league’s coaches have said projects as a tournament in which the conference’s parity could be highlighted.
“I think there’s a belief in our locker room that we can come out of this pod — and I don’t think that belief is fake,” Dempsey said.
UAlbany has not played either Binghamton or Hartford this season. While Brown said his team spent some time working on its zone offense in case the Great Danes match up Sunday with Binghamton or Hartford, the rest of the week’s preparation was spent on making sure UAlbany is ready to win the only game guaranteed to it this weekend.
“If we don’t have a tremendous sense of urgency, we’re going to be getting on the bus at 7 o’clock [Saturday night] and heading back to Albany,” Brown said. “That’s the reality of it.”