ALBANY — In the season’s first weeks, one of first-year head coach Dwayne Killings’ messages to his UAlbany men’s basketball players has been to focus on “what’s the next right thing to do?”
In other words: Don’t let mistakes on previous plays affect success on future ones.
Ahead of Wednesday’s 8 p.m. game at Kansas State of the Big 12 Conference, guard Jamel Horton’s performance down the stretch in last week’s first win of the season was a vivid example of what Killings wants to see from his players. In the final five minutes of UAlbany’s 64-62 victory against Eastern Illinois, Horton committed a pair of offensive fouls that resulted in turnovers, but the miscues didn’t stop the 6-foot-4 senior from continuing to lead his teammates and produce several big plays.
“That was just me, trying to get a win one way or another,” Horton said Monday of his late-game effort against Eastern Illinois.
In that game, Justin Neely made the game-winning 3-pointer off an assist from De’Vondre Perry, but Horton — one of six Great Danes that stayed with the program following Will Brown’s dismissal as coach — largely was the player who made sure UAlbany had a chance for its final possession to matter. Horton produced seven points and two rebounds in the final five minutes, and was extra vocal in leading his teammates.
“He was leading us, talking in every huddle, making sure we were all on the same page,” UAlbany’s Matt Cerruti said after that win.
Part of Horton’s message as UAlbany chased its first win: “If it’s got to be ugly, it’s got to be ugly.”
Horton finished that game with nine points, six rebounds and six assists in 37 minutes. He also committed five turnovers, a number that he needs to trim, but the errors didn’t deter him from making the crunch-time plays the Great Danes needed from their lead guard. During a late-game timeout, Killings said he told Horton that “everything that’s happened before this moment doesn’t matter; it’s just about what happens next,” and the coach saw Horton take that to heart.
“He’s maturing on the court,” Killings said after last week’s win. “He’s understanding what it takes to win and how to win.”
SCOUTING KANSAS STATE
When 1-5 UAlbany visits 3-2 Kansas State, Killings said he understands what the Great Danes are facing. In some ways, UAlbany and Kansas State play a similar brand of basketball in how each values playing hard for a full 40 minutes.
“They’re a really physical team,” Killings said Monday. “They hang their hat defensively. They shrink the floor. They make it really hard to attack the paint.”
Coached by Bruce Weber, who led Illinois to an appearance in the NCAA championship game in 2005 and brought his current program to the Elite Eight in 2018, Kansas State has lost both its games against fellow high-major programs. The Wildcats are 3-0 against mid-major foes, with wins against Florida A&M, Nebraska Omaha and North Dakota. Those three mid-major programs were a combined 2-14 against Division I foes through Monday’s action.
Nijel Pack leads Kansas State with 15.6 points per game, but Kansas State has primarily earned its success on the defensive end of the court. The Wildcats have outscored their opponents by approximately 10 points per game, largely because of the 38.2% shooting their opponents have managed. From 3-point territory, Kansas State’s foes have only made 26.4% of their attempts.
UAlbany is shooting 39.1% from the field and 29.7% from 3 in its first six games.
Neely said the Great Danes took a “big boost of confidence” from registering its first win after five consecutive losses to start the season. The team played well, too, against Kentucky into the second half before the overall athleticism and talent of that group of Wildcats took control in the game’s final 15 minutes. Horton said what’s important for the Great Danes in their latest road game against a high-major opponent is to make sure they stay confident and relaxed as they have been in recent games.
“I feel like in the season opener [against Towson], we kind of played off excitement. Everyone was excited to get going, [to] get the season underway,” Horton said. “Now we’re a team trying to figure out how we can string together wins, how we can be consistent and how we can be the team that we want to be.”