UAlbany men’s basketball ‘growing up as a team’ ahead of matchup with rival Stony Brook

University at Albany's Trey Hutcheson takes a shot over Columbia's Cameron Shockley-Okeke Saturday, December 11, 2021.

University at Albany's Trey Hutcheson takes a shot over Columbia's Cameron Shockley-Okeke Saturday, December 11, 2021.

ALBANY — There are different ways to measure progress.

Here’s a comparison that says a lot about the way the UAlbany men’s basketball season is trending ahead of its 7 p.m. matchup Saturday against Stony Brook at SEFCU Arena.

During its current three-game winning streak, the Great Danes have won by an average of 12.3 points per game against their America East Conference foes.

In their first three wins of the season, which took them 10 games to accrue, the Great Danes won by a total of seven points.

Winning close games is important, but being able to win by multiple-possession advantages demonstrates a different level of play. 

A variety of factors and reasons have contributed to the difference in winning margins from those early victories to the Great Danes’ more-recent ones. But UAlbany lead guard Jamel Horton — speaking after the latest of the team’s double-digit wins, a 66-54 win at UMBC — said one stood out above the rest to him. 

“We’re growing up as a team,” Horton said. “I thought we’ve closed out games so much better. We’ve built on leads so much better. To me, that screams growth, that screams maturity.”

Even the loss of leading scorer De’Vondre Perry, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, hasn’t derailed the Great Danes. If anything, that personnel loss seems to have spurred more growth for UAlbany with how it forced more Great Danes to step up rather than rely so much on Perry to carry the team.

“You know, it’s just different now,” UAlbany head coach Dwayne Killings said of his team’s style of play since losing Perry. “We have to do things together.”

“They fit together better now,” Stony Brook head coach Geno Ford said.

That’s not to say, especially in the long term, that UAlbany’s better off without Perry, who Killings confirmed Friday night had successful surgery that morning. So much of UAlbany’s offense flowed through Perry because he was the team’s most-talented scorer, and his ability to score consistently in an isolated, 1-on-1 setting isn’t something the Great Danes have elsewhere on their roster.

But UAlbany has made up for Perry’s absence in a number of ways, and all have contributed to the growth that’s been evident in recent games.

For starters, Matt Cerruti and Jamel Horton are playing lately at an all-conference level. Since missing a couple games due to health-and-safety protocols, Cerruti has averaged  16.7 points per game on 52.9% shooting. Horton has averaged 16.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in conference play.

“Even when he doesn’t play awesome,” Ford said of Horton, “he finds a way to get 15, 16 points for them, and there are not many guys in our league that can do that.”

Other Great Danes besides Cerruti and Horton have elevated their play, and that’s collectively been the case on the defensive end of the court. UAlbany has allowed fewer than one point per possession in its last four games, and is the America East’s in-conference-play leader in defensive points per possession by a solid margin.

Stony Brook (3-1 America East, 11-6 overall) plays at a faster pace and generally has a stronger offense than UAlbany (3-2, 7-10), but Great Danes junior Trey Hutcheson said his club is confident it can trade baskets with the Seawolves if they need to do that.

But that’s not UAlbany’s goal.

“I think we’d prefer to guard and play defense the way that we can,” said Hutcheson, whose team has allowed an average of 60.3 points per game in winning six of its last nine. “If we win the game 50 to 45, compared to 80 to 75, I think we’re OK with that.”

Stony Brook’s Ford spoke highly of the growth he’s seen from the Great Danes, but the Seawolves’ third-year head coach — whose team was picked to win the conference in the preseason poll — described his club as still “trying to find itself” amid an uneven campaign. 

“Here’s the weirdest stat about us: We’re 11-6, and five of our six losses have been by 22 points or more,” Ford said.

Only three players have appeared in every game this season for Stony Brook, and expected standout Elijah Olaniyi missed a bunch of games early this season due to injury and Ford said Olaniyi is now away from the team due to a “personal leave of absence.”

But Stony Brook has found ways to win games, and will pose a variety of problems for the Great Danes. Anthony Roberts is the Seawolves’ leading scorer on the season at 14.8 points per game, and Stony Brook’s roster includes three double-digit scorers.

For Killings and a number of his players, Saturday’s matchup is the first against Stony Brook, one of UAlbany’s SUNY rivals. Part of the preparation for this weekend’s matchup was gaining some familiarity with the history of the rivalry.

“I think you have to appreciate the past to understand the moment that you’re in,” said Killings, who mentioned he watched Thursday night the clip of Peter Hooley’s memorable, conference championship-winning shot against Stony Brook in 2015. “You don’t want somebody to ever care more about the game than you, and that’s what we’re trying to teach our kids.”

Another lesson in recent days has been one meant to continue to help further the growth and maturity of the Great Danes.

“Coach has been preaching never too high, never too low,” Cerruti said. “So we’re trying to stay even keel. . . . We want to continue to improve and continue to get better, and I think we’re doing that well as a team.”

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