Most college basketball coaches would make good psychologists. They know how to spin almost any situation in their favor.
For example, University at Albany head coach Will Brown, whose 23-10 Great Danes have lost to second-seeded Vermont (21-10) twice this year, feels his team has the Catamounts right where it wants them.
That’s why Brown said his team will have the upper hand when the two fierce rivals meet this morning at 11:30 for the America East Conference tournament championship at Patrick Gym in Burlington, Vt. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
UAlbany defeated Vermont in the championship game in both 2006 and 2007, but in recent years, the Cats have dominated, including a rout the last time the teams played at Patrick Gym.
That doesn’t mean anything to Brown.
“It will be important to maintain our focus and just to relax,” said Brown. “We can’t get too uptight. We’ll have 600 fans at the game. It won’t be like last time, when we had something like 15 of our fans there.
“The pressure is on them. They are the [higher] seed, and it’s in their building. Our two seniors in the starting lineup [Mike Black and Jacob Iati] need to be a calming influence. Plus, we’re a completely different team with a different lineup than when we faced them up there the last time.”
Brown does have a point. When the Danes played the Cats in Burlington, sophomore forward Sam Rowley and junior transfer Gary Johnson weren’t in the starting lineup. They make the Danes a much more physical team.
“Patrick Gym is definitely one of the toughest places to play in our league,” said Brown. “They cheer for every basket like it’s for the national title. They have a tremendous homecourt advantage. But we feel all the pressure is on them. All we’ve got to do is relax and enjoy the moment. We’re going to be loose and relaxed, because we have nothing to lose. We have to play well to win this game, but I think we will.”
Brown is counting on another big game from senior Mike Black, who scored the game-winning layup with 2.4 seconds left to beat Stony Brook in the tournament semifinals Sunday night. Black, a first-team all-conference selection, went over the 1,500-point mark in that game.
“Mike was terrific vs. Stony Brook. He had no turnovers, and he didn’t get caught in the lane,” said Brown. “If he plays like that against Vermont, he will be awfully tough.
“He’s playing with a tremendous sense of urgency right now. Everyone understands their role on the team right now.”
Black knows the task at hand is extremely difficult, but he thinks the Great Danes are ready to pull off another upset. Seeded fourth, the Great Danes would be the lowest seed to win the title.
“It will take everything to win this game — effort, toughness, making shots and defense. Going into their gym will be tough,” Black said.
“We laid an egg there the first time we played them. But we showed that we can beat anyone in the conference when we beat Stony Brook. We have to be tougher than we were the first time we played Vermont. It’s every Division I college player’s dream to play for a conference title.”
Black said he prefers not to think about the consequences if the Great Danes lose.
“It could be my last college game, but it will be fun, and I’m going to try to be loose,” he said. “I was watching Iona and Western Kentucky celebrating their conference wins this week, and it gave me butterflies. I hope that’s going to be us at about 1 p.m. [today].”
“I think it will be a great atmosphere up there,” added Rowley, the Great Danes’ leading rebounder and the hero of theier quarterfinal victory over Maine. “There will be a lot of energy in that building. Unfortunately, most of the fans won’t be cheering for us, but we won’t be listening to what they’re saying. I don’t think we’ll feel the pressure, because we know we’re big underdogs. I think we’ve learned a lot since the last time we played them.”
Iati put the game into perspective.
“We are ready to go to battle,” he said. “I’ve never wanted anything more than I’ve wanted this. We are going to be aggressive and loose. We expect to win. We’re ready, and we want this badly. This is what I came back to school for.”
Black (15 ppg) and Iati (12 ppg) lead the UAlbany offense, and they will be joined in the startling lineup by junior center John Puk, Johnson and Rowley.
Vermont, a rugged physical team with strong rebounding throughout its lineup and a precise set offense, is led by Clancy Rugg (11.4 ppg) and Luke Apfeld (10.8 ppg). But the Cats’ best all-around player is Brian Voelkel, who produces 6.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.