University at Albany juniors Luke Devlin and DJ Evans would love to be prime-time players, but the bit parts they’ve played this season have helped the Great Danes secure the third NCAA tournament trip in the program’s short Division I history.
The spotlight won’t shine very brightly on these UAlbany bench performers, but they will be invaluable when the 15th-seeded Great Danes take on second-seeded Duke in Friday’s Midwest Regional at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center (formerly Wachovia Center).
For Devlin, the first of three Australian recruits on the UAlbany roster, the Duke matchup is special, because it was the first college team he recognized as a youngster growing up in Sydney.
“College basketball has only been followed fairly recently in Australia,” said Devlin, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward from Newington College.
“The first game I ever remember watching in the NCAA tournament was the Duke-Butler game. Duke was the first high-profile team I saw, and it’s one of the reasons I decided to come to the states to play college basketball. Most of my friends were very excited for me when I decided to come here and play.”
Devlin made an immediate impact at UAlbany as a freshman, when he started 31 of 32 games. He scored 7.4 points and grabbed a team-best 6.9 rebounds a game en route to being named to the America East Conference all-rookie squad. Although he was comfortable playing down low with the big boys, he demonstrated excellent range with his jump shot and even sank 32 three-pointers.
But despite being named a captain, injury problems ruined his sophomore season, when he started 29 times but was limited to just 20.4 minutes per contest, averaging 5.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Although Devlin returned much healthier this year, when he was again named one of the team captains, he never regained his shooting touch or his quickness. When fellow Australians Sam Rowley and Peter Hooley moved from the bench into the starting lineup about midway through the season, Devlin’s minutes decreased dramatically. He ended up averaging only 10.9 minutes per game while producing just three points and two rebounds per outing.
“I just tried to do everything I could to help this team,” he said. “The injuries were tough, but I’m definitely feeling much better now. I try to help by being a good leader and to produce when I’m called upon.”
Devlin, one of the team’s brightest players and best defenders, bided his time on the bench. There was one five-game stretch where he reached double-figures in scoring three times, including 13 against Navy, 15 against Brown and 12 against Binghamton, but he once again slipped into obscurity until last Saturday’s America East Conference championship game at Vermont.
Devlin stunned the Catamounts by scoring 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting. He was one of the main reasons why the Danes pulled the upset to win their third tournament championship.
“Luke will play some against Duke. We will have to see how the game flows,” said UAlbany head coach Will Brown. “We needed Luke against Vermont. He’s a pick-and-pop kind of guy, and he made some key jump shots for us.”
“It felt great to contribute,” said Devlin. “We will go into the Duke game very confident, because you never know what can happen. We’re excited to be the underdog, but we know this will be our toughest test of the year.”
Meanwhile, while Devlin has at least tasted the starting role for much of his career, Evans, a 5-9, 175-pounder from Brandon, Miss., has been a spot-duty player, who gives starting point guard Mike Black a breather from time to time. A solid ball-handler, Evans is extremely quick and is both a solid three-point (11-for-28) and free-throw (.778) shooter. He scored in double-digits just twice, with 10 against Loyola and 12 against UMBC. Evans averages 2.5 points and 10.1 minutes per game.
“To tell you the truth, it’s been hard, sometimes, spending so much time on the bench,” said the soft-spoken Evans, who transferred from East Mississippi Junior College. “But the coaches told us to always be ready. I wondered, sometimes, if I made the right choice coming here, but it’s every Division I player’s dream to play in the NCAA tournament, and I’m very excited to get a chance to do just that.
“My role is to bring instant energy when I come into the game and to play tough defense and get my teammates the ball.”