ALBANY — Through its opening batch of six games, the UAlbany men’s basketball program has largely relied on its cast’s veteran players to carry it — with one exception.
That’s Justin Neely, a forward who earned Monday his second consecutive America East Conference Rookie of the Week award for first-year head coach Dwayne Killings’ program.
“He’s a kid that has high goals and aspirations, and he’s very much able to achieve all of them,” Killings said of Neely.
Neely averaged a modest six points and three rebounds in two games last week, but hit the biggest shot of the Great Danes’ season to this point when he made a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of the team’s first win of the season. In that 64-62 victory against Eastern Illinois, Neely had eight points and four rebounds.
“Just trying to play the game the right way, and then you get rewarded for doing the right things on the court,” Neely said. “I just want to keep it going.”
On the season, Neely is averaging 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.5 minutes per game. Neely is tied with graduate student De’Vondre Perry for the team’s lead in rebounding, while Neely has played the most minutes of any Great Danes freshman.
A Miami native, Neely’s father played football for the University of Miami and his brother currently plays for the Hurricanes. At 6-foot-5, Neely is a bit undersized for the 4 position he often plays, but the freshman’s combination of a 205-pound frame, above-average athleticism and a strong motor have helped Neely carve out a role this season with the Great Danes.
Killings said he liked that Neely had the confidence to take last week’s game-winning shot — and that he wants the freshman to grow from making that pivotal 3.
“It unlocks a whole other level of confidence in him,” said Killings, whose team next plays Wednesday against Kansas State of the Big 12 Conference.
Besides Neely, UAlbany’s freshmen players include Tairi Ketner, Ny’Mire Little and Aaron Reddish. Each of those players has played at least 27 minutes through the Great Danes’ 1-5 start and shown at least a flash or two of their on-court potential, and Killings said he remains “excited about all four of them.”
“But, obviously, Justin has taken a big step for himself,” Killings said of Neely.
Just as obvious, though, is that there’s ample room for growth for Neely. He’s shooting 32.4% on the season, and Killings said the UAlbany coaching staff challenges Neely during practice scrimmaging and games to make it a goal to collect 10 rebounds.
He likes that the Great Danes’ coaching staff wants more from him.
“It’s a process,” Neely said. “I’m enjoying it.”
Killings said Monday that Gerald Drumgoole (knee) had successful knee surgery last week, but that a return-to-play timetable for the Pittsburgh transfer hasn’t been determined.
While there is a “chance” Drumgoole could be ready to play when America East play begins for the Great Danes on Jan. 2 at Vermont, Killings said that’s far from certain.
“We’ve got to get through the next couple weeks to see how his body adjusts,” Killings said.
Meanwhile, there was no update of substance Monday regarding the availability of sophomore Will Amica, who hasn’t played yet this season because of a hip injury. Amica — who injuries limited to appearing in one game last season — remains day to day and wasn’t ruled out for Wednesday’s game, but did not practice during the portion of Monday’s practice open to reporters.