ALBANY — To put it mildly, the UAlbany and Hartford men’s basketball programs have experienced some changes since they last met at Chase Family Arena in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Those teams will play at 4 p.m. Saturday on Hartford’s home floor, where they most recently played on the final day of February last year when Hartford advanced past UAlbany to the America East Conference semifinals.
The weeks that followed that game were program-changing ones for both UAlbany and Hartford.
Less than two weeks later, Hartford head coach John Gallagher’s program clinched its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament with an America East Conference championship win against UMass Lowell.
Several days after that historic win for the Hawks, UAlbany introduced Dwayne Killings as its new coach.
And, then, a day later, reportedly within the hour after Baylor — which later won the NCAA title — had ended Hartford’s season, Hartford officials informed Gallagher of the intention to transition the school’s athletic program from Division I to Division III, a plan that was finalized last May.
This is Hartford’s final season in the America East, a conference that also learned last month it will lose Stony Brook — to the CAA — following the current academic year. Hartford is slated to compete next season as a Division I independent as part of its transition to Division III, but, given the realities of the sport, that means this season is Hartford’s final opportunity to seek a March Madness bid.
Gallagher said his Hartford (3-3 America East, 5-13 overall) club doesn’t need to use the now-or-never element to its season for motivation. The drive for success, Gallagher said, comes from the knowledge the Hawks largely stayed together for this season to defend their championship despite the circumstances surrounding them.
“This, to us, is — forget our record — a winning season, no matter what, because these kids stayed here with me,” said Gallagher, who has one season remaining on his Hartford contract after this one. “They all could have left, but they didn’t. That’s how I know we’ll be there in March.”
Hartford’s record is a deceiving one. The Hawks dealt with a number of injuries in November and December, and didn’t play for four weeks at one point due to health-and-safety protocols. Following a 1-10 start, Hartford’s won four of seven games despite playing its last six games during a 15-day blitz.
Killings credited Hartford’s ability to keep nearly all of its roster intact and its recent success to the attitude of the Hawks’ coach.
“Coach Gallagher . . . he’s a fighter, by nature,” said Killings, who has known Gallagher for more than a decade, ever since Killings was on the coaching staff at Temple and Gallagher was an assistant at Penn. “I think he cares about his kids a lot. And I think they’re just focusing on what they control, and that’s what it’s about: focusing on what you can control, not what you can’t. So I think it says a lot about his leadership there.”
Killings, during a teleconference Friday with reporters, said he felt “bad for the kids” at Hartford who “went there with one idea of what their experience was going to be like.”
The UAlbany coach added: “I think the kids get lost in all these decisions we make in sports and in our college athletics world.”
Killings said that sympathy, too, extends to the athletes at Stony Brook who learned earlier this week that they won’t be allowed to participate in any further America East postseason play due to league rules related to a school exiting the conference.
“It’s the decision that the adults make, but I just feel bad for the kids,” Killings said. “It’s just — it stinks.”
UAlbany (5-5, 9-13) has lost its last two games, and is trying to avoid its program’s fourth-consecutive losing season. The defeat that ended last season for the Great Danes sticks with the team’s returning players, such as Jarvis Doles who said the Hawks beat his club last season because of their “discipline and toughness” in the key moments of an 83-77 game.
“We have to bring that same level of toughness all around,” Doles said of this weekend’s contest.
Gallagher has been Hartford’s coach since 2010. He said it’ll be somewhat odd to coach against a Great Danes team that doesn’t include Brown — now the coach and general manager of the Albany Patroons, a professional team — on its sideline.
“I competed against Will for such a long time, so it’ll be different,” Gallagher said during an interview Friday with The Daily Gazette. “But I’ve also watched Albany enough with Dwayne to understand they already have an identity — and if you can watch someone’s team in their first year and they have an identity, that guy is doing a good job.”
Three things stick out about Killings’ Great Danes to Gallagher: their offensive patience, attention to detail on defense and their overall determination.
“They play extremely hard for 40 minutes with great energy,” Gallagher said.
Hartford is an experienced club, and Gallagher said there are moments when he can sense that his team feels its season doesn’t truly begin until March. As it is for UAlbany, though, obtaining a top-four seed — and a home playoff game in the quarterfinals — is crucial for a Hartford squad that will enter the playoffs knowing it knows how to win.
“This group, when it comes down to March, we’re going to be a hard out,” Gallagher said. “You’re going to have to beat us to win that game.”
Hartford returns five of its top-six scorers from last season, including 2020-21 all-conference players Traci Carter and Austin Williams.
Three players — Moses Flowers, Hunter Marks and Williams — are averaging double-digit scoring for Hartford, and Williams’ per-game mark of 15.8 points leads the team.
After playing Hartford, UAlbany will get to do two things it hasn’t in quite some time.
First off, the club will play back-to-back home games against Maine and Vermont. UAlbany has played four of its last six games on the road, and last played consecutive home games on Jan. 12 and Jan. 15.
Also, the Great Danes will get back to playing a normal schedule after playing a frantic one to accommodate games postponed due to health-and-safety protocols.
UAlbany’s next three weeks of games will see the team play on Wednesdays and Saturdays before finishing up its regular-season with a Tuesday game.
UAlbany’s game at Hartford this weekend concludes a stretch of five games in 11 days.