ALBANY — Coming off a disappointing performance Saturday on Long Island, the UAlbany men’s basketball team gets the chance Tuesday to secure what seemed very unlikely at season’s start: a home playoff game in the America East quarterfinals.
With a win at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Hartford at SEFCU Arena, the Great Danes will be locked in as a top-four seed for the league’s postseason tournament that begins Sunday. UAlbany was picked to finish in seventh place in the conference’s preseason poll, and looked well on its way to finishing right around there after starting its non-conference season with losses in seven of its first eight games.
Now, UAlbany (9-8 league, 13-16 overall) is a win against Hartford (8-8, 10-18) away from starting the playoffs this weekend at SEFCU Arena, and securing its program’s first winning America East regular season since the 2017-18 campaign.
First-year head coach Dwayne Killings said the importance of the Great Danes’ matchup with Hartford goes beyond trying to earn home-court advantage for at least one playoff game, but also that registering that accomplishment is important to UAlbany.
“For our program to be able to host a playoff game here in this building would be tremendous in our first year,” said Killings, who was hired in March. “I think we’ve grown a lot. I think we’ve shown, in moments, what we’re capable of doing. I think our seniors have shown unbelievable leadership throughout the journey. And it’s a huge, huge game for our program.”
With only one game left in UAlbany’s regular season, the America East standings remain jumbled. After first-place Vermont, the next six teams — a group that includes UAlbany — all have between seven and nine losses. A win against Hartford will deliver the Great Danes a home playoff game this weekend, while a loss in UAlbany’s regular-season finale will leave the Great Danes hoping for favorable tiebreaker outcomes.
“Any team in this league is capable of winning,” UAlbany graduate student Matt Cerruti said before Monday’s practice. “So it’s all about who is playing good at the right time, and obviously we want to focus on that — and this game is huge for that because you don’t want to go [into the postseason] with a loss. Then, you’re overthinking things. A win takes a lot of pressure off your shoulders.”
UAlbany had a three-game winning streak before losing 66-50 Saturday at Stony Brook. Killings said afterwards that the Great Danes had “some possessions where we just did not compete the way we’re capable of,” and senior guard Jamel Horton described Stony Brook as “just beat[ing] us at every facet of the game” in that 16-point loss.
“I don’t think we played totally like us,” Killings said Monday.
Against Hartford, the Great Danes need to bring to the court the toughness they’ve typically demonstrated this season. UAlbany defeated the Hawks by 19 points in early February, but Hartford head coach John Gallagher said before that game that he sensed the focus and intensity for his veteran-laden club, which won the league championship last season, would increase as the postseason came into sight. Also back in early February, Gallagher said he had the “keys to a good car,” and Hartford has headed into March off winning five of its last seven games.
This year is Hartford’s last in the America East, as the school announced last year its decision to transition to the Division III level. As the calendar reaches March, it’s difficult to see Hartford not bringing a great effort to the court each game given its surrounding circumstances, but Killings said he has “no concern” regarding whether his team will match — or exceed — the Hawks’ effort.
“It has to mean a lot to us. For our program to host a home game here, it has to mean a lot,” Killings said. “To win your last regular-season game, it has to mean a lot. . . . This time of year, leading into the playoffs, it has to mean everything to our program.”
De’Vondre Perry, UAlbany’s leading scorer this season, has not played since suffering a knee injury in mid-January and the procedure to fix his torn meniscus on Jan. 21 was described as a season-ending one.
However, Perry has now been participating in full-contact portions of practice for multiple weeks, and — for the most part — has looked like a player seeing if he’s ready to play.
Killings has consistently said there hasn’t been a conversation with Perry regarding if the graduate student will try to play again this season for UAlbany, but the firmness of Perry’s out-for-the-season designation seems to have softened. When asked if Perry could play against Hartford, Killings said “I don’t think so” and that the player’s practice participation is “about the future,” but the head coach also suggested the door isn’t completely closed on Perry playing again for the Great Danes this year.
“The right thing for Dre is going to be what he feels is the right thing, but I don’t know if [playing is] the right thing at this moment,” Killings said. “But he’ll dictate that. Right now, we’re playing with the same starters, the same players, that you saw in the last game.”