University at Albany men’s basketball coach Will Brown has many fond memories of the last time his Great Danes played an NCAA tournament game against a top-ranked team in Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center.
In 2006, the 16th-seeded Great Danes nearly pulled the biggest upset in tournament history, putting a scare into top-seeded Connecticut before the Huskies rallied late to beat UAlbany in its first NCAA appearance.
A similar situation could unfold this weekend, as the 15th-seeded Great Danes will meet second-seeded Duke (27-5) at Wachovia in the Midwest Regional Friday at 12:15 p.m.
“This is a David-Goliath story,” said Brown, whose 24-10 Great Danes will make their third NCAA tournament appearance.
Brown has the utmost respect for Duke, which he believes is the best team in the country.
“When we played UConn in the tournament, I thought they were the best team in the country,” he said. “In my opinion, Duke is the best team in the country right now, and if they had Ryan Kelly all along, they would be the top seed. It will be a huge task to beat Duke, which has arguably the best coach in the country in Mike Krzyzewski. When you think college football, you think Notre Dame, and when you think college basketball, you think Duke.”.
The Blue Devils were also a second seed a year ago, when they lost to Lehigh, 75-70. Brown said that upset will make it even tougher for the Great Danes to slip through the cracks.
“They will have laser-like focus this year. Coach K will make sure of that,” said Brown.
The bad news is that Duke has an all-star roster that includes Mason Plumlee (17.1 points per game, 10.3 rebounds per game) Kelly (14.8 ppg), Seth Curry (16.9 ppg), Quinn Cook (12.5 ppg) and Rasheed Sulaimon (12.0 ppg). But the good news is that the Great Danes got just about the perfect matchup for them. They wanted to avoid the dreaded play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and they wanted to play relatively close to home so their fans could attend.
“Duke is one of the best teams in the country,” said sophomore forward Sam Rowley, who admitted that he didn’t follow much basketball in his native Australia until a few years ago. “You think of Duke and North Carolina when you think about college basketball.
“I think the first NCAA tournament I really followed was when Tyler Hansbrough was at North Carolina, and that wasn’t that long ago. But I watch a lot of college basketball now, and I know that Duke has plenty of great players, like Plumlee and Kelly. They are terrific players. Knocking off a No. 2 seed will be extremely difficult, but it does happen, and that will give us added motivation.
“Maybe history can repeat itself. This will be a lot like our last two games. The pressure won’t be on us.”
“I remember watching UAlbany play Connecticut when my brother [Jon] played for UAlbany, and it was a great game,” said fifth-year senior Jacob Iati, who was born in York, Pa. “It was a fantastic environment, and the best game I’ve ever been to. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get enough tickets for all my friends and family who want to come to this game.”
Iati said he believes in upsets.
“We’re up for the challenge,” he said. “Duke lost to Lehigh before, so we could do it, too. I think this game is great perfect for us, because so many of our fans can go to the game. Obviously, no matchup is going to be good for us as a 15th seed, but anything can happen.”
Senior post player Blake Metcalf, a three-year captain, still can’t believe he’ll be playing in the NCAA tournament, but he has special motivation to play Duke.
“This is a real moment for me,” he said. “We all screamed when we saw on the TV screen that we were going to play Duke. I played against Plumlee in AAU basketball, so I have quite a bit of experience against him. We have nothing to lose, so this should be a great experience for us.”
Senior guard Mike Black, named the Reggie Lewis Most Outstanding Player in the America East Conference tournament, agreed that Duke will be an extremely challenging opponent, but he was upbeat.
“I’m so anxious right now, and all I want to do is play,” he said.
“Everything is happening so quickly right now. But I think we can beat them if everything works out for us. Remember that everybody doubted us against both Stony Brook and Vermont. We are loose and ready to play.”
Duke has received the No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the sixth straight season, and has competed in the NCAA tournament for the 18th consecutive time and 29th time in the last 30 years. The Blue Devils own a sparkling 96-32 tournament
record, with national championships in 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010.
“We all have great memories of 2006,” said UAlbany athletic director Lee McElroy. “We’re making history for our program once again, and we feel fortunate to be playing both one of the top academic and top athletic programs in the country. This is a great opportunity.”