The Outlet: New college basketball season brings new roles

Siena men’s basketball player Jared Billups during practice on campus at Siena College in Loudonville on Wednesday, January 19, 2022.

Siena men’s basketball player Jared Billups during practice on campus at Siena College in Loudonville on Wednesday, January 19, 2022.

THE OUTLET – It’s a line that’s demonstrated staying power, one that Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Al McGuire popularized decades ago, that “the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.”

And, as the newest Division I basketball season starts up, a number of young players on Capital Region squads are planning to show how they’ve further developed their games after strong debut seasons, just as UAlbany women’s basketball’s Kayla Cooper did a season ago when she blossomed into a sophomore standout.

Ahead of this season, two players in particular to watch are Jared Billups of Siena men’s basketball and Justin Neely of UAlbany men’s basketball, versatile players expected to help lead their respective programs.

Neely made no secret about one of his goals for the upcoming season. The reigning America East Rookie of the Year stated during the offseason that he wants to claim America East Player of the Year this season. While a lingering shoulder injury has hampered his preseason and left him unlikely to be available to play in the Great Danes’ season-opening game Monday at Towson, Neely put in ample work during the offseason in pursuit of his personal goal. 

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To start, that meant Neely eliminated fast food and sweets from his diet — and dropped approximately 20 pounds.

“I had to get in better shape. I raised the bar for myself and what I wanted to be this year — I want to be an all-conference player, I want to be an all-defensive player,” Neely said. “My body and my durability is something that was really important [to improve]. I had to drop some weight, get stronger and be ready to succeed.”

Neely ended last season at 230 pounds. He’s gained back some of the weight he lost in the form of muscle, and said the 215 pounds now on his 6-foot-6 frame represent his “happy playing weight.” In reviewing footage of last season, UAlbany head coach Dwayne Killings said it was apparent that Neely “wasn’t ready from a conditioning standpoint to play at the level he’s capable of playing at for extended minutes,” and that was a note Neely took to heart.

“And, now, we want to tap into his full potential,” Killings said.

Neely showed a lot of that potential and had his fair share of big moments last season — but he also produced modest per-game averages of 6.4 points and 4.4 rebounds. Doubling those averages is a solid sophomore goal for Neely.

A significant uptick in counting statistics is expected from Billups, too. On a team last season with several experienced wing players, Billups quickly became a fan favorite and a key part of head coach Carmen Maciariello’s rotation due to the defensive determination and hustle the Maryland native brought to the court. The 5.7 points and five rebounds per game Billups offered were more a bonus than a necessity for the Saints last season.

This season?

“We need you to do everything,” was part of Maciariello’s offseason message to Billups, who will likely gobble up 30-plus minutes per game this season for the revamped Saints.

That’s obviously a major change in expectations, but it’s also the type of role change that players crave. Billups had the extra challenge this past offseason of needing to rehabilitate from a wrist surgery in the spring, but he used the months between the games that count to add 10 pounds, strengthen his ball-handling and work on his perimeter shot. Given the right-wrist surgery, Billups devoted substantial time to working with his left hand, and the gains made there should help make the perimeter player better able to attack the basket off the bounce.

And Billups — now 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds — will get plenty of opportunities this season, which starts Monday for the Saints at Holy Cross, to show off all the ways he’s improved after an all-rookie season.

What hasn’t changed at all, he said, is the attitude he brings to the court.

“I’m still the underdog,” Billups said. “That’s the mindset I have.”

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There are few players that don’t think they should be starting.

But with the UAlbany women’s basketball team, which won an America East championship last season and starts its 2022-23 season Friday vs. Merrimack, there’s more players than usual with a legitimate case.

When all are healthy, there are at least seven Great Danes that could make a great argument to start for head coach Colleen Mullen’s team. Six Great Danes — Cooper, Lucia Decortes, Helene Haegerstrand, Ellen Hahne, Grace Heeps and Lilly Phillips — started double-digit games last season, and that group doesn’t include Morgan Haney, who was the America East Sixth Player of the Year last season.

“Number one, that’s a very good problem to have,” Mullen said of the Great Danes’ returning depth. “Number two, it’s a very confusing [problem].”

Haney, though, said there’s no confusion within the Great Danes over how the team’s players view the situation.

“Everyone honestly competes as if they’re trying to earn a spot, but I think we have so much respect for one another and we have so much respect for our coaches, and we trust that whatever decisions they make at the end of the day are ultimately in our best interests,” Haney said.

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That’s the attitude Mullen has seen this preseason from her players.

“They’re great teammates,” said Mullen, whose club plays a road exhibition game Monday against Division II Saint Rose. “They have really high expectations for each other, but they are really unselfish. They celebrate each other.”

Categories: College Sports, Siena College, Sports, Sports, UAlbany

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