Don’t look now, but it is already 20 games into the season, and the University at Albany men’s basketball team still doesn’t have an identity.
That could be a big problem, especially since the Great Danes face the top two teams in the America East Conference — Stony Brook (tonight at 7) and Vermont (Saturday at 7:30 in the annual Big Purple Growl) — in key back-to-back home games this week.
In past campaigns, the Danes were known for their tough defense. Other seasons, they were known for their perimeter shooting, their depth, their rebounding prowess or their strength inside.
So far, the 2013-14 Danes appear to be confused. One night, they dig down deep and play solid defense. The next night, they pour in shot after shot from beyond the arc.
Even their one calling card that they could depend on game after game — their free-throw shooting — has let them down lately.
They were nearly defeated by Binghamton last week when they shot only 15-for-27 from the charity stripe, and then they lost at New Hampshire when they converted a season-low 3-for-9 from the line in the second half.
“Establishing our identity is one of the things we have been talking about,” said UAlbany head coach Will Brown. “Every year is different, and every team is different. Every team needs its own identity, but there is nothing we can hang our hat on this year. We’re not really known for any one thing. We seem to be on a roller coaster.”
“I don’t think we have an identity at all,” said 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Peter Hooley. “We’ve definitely struggled this year with that, but I think it’s getting better. We had a player meeting Saturday, and we’ve all agreed to step it up. We’ve been banging each other around in practice all week. Now, we’ve got to bang on somebody else.”
Brown said this year’s group doesn’t have a “refuse to lose” attitude, and part of that is a lack of a strong leader.
“We’re reacting too much, and we’re back on our heels,” he said. “We are letting other teams dictate to us how the game is played.”
For most of the season, the Great Danes were ranked among the top teams in the nation in free-throw shooting and were above 77 percent. They’ve slipped to 75 percent after their recent difficulties.
“Free-throw shooting is a rare part of the game, because so much of it is mental,” Brown said. “They are free points. In two of our games [at UMass-Lowell and at UNH], we lost games I think we should have won because we didn’t make our free throws. You are always finding a way to score easy points, and making free throws or scoring off offensive rebounds are two of those ways. You can’t afford to waste those opportunities.”
Hooley (14.8 ppg) and junior forward Sam Rowley (11.7 ppg), a fellow Australian, continue to lead UAlbany in scoring, but Rowley has struggled recently, especially from the line, because of a wrist injury. Senior point guard DJ Evans (11.6 ppg) and senior swingman Gary Johnson (10.0 ppg) also score in double figures, while 6-10 senior center John Puk (6.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) rounds out the starting lineup.
Stony Brook (7-0, 15-6), one of UAlbany’s oldest rivals, has won seven out of the last eight meetings with the Great Danes, who pulled an upset of the top-seeded Seawolves in last season’s conference tournament semifinals.
The Seawolves return four starters from last year’s squad — Anthony Jackson, Jameel Warney, Dave Coley and Carson Puriefoy — and all four are averaging in double figures. Warney ranks second in the conference in scoring (15.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.7 rpg), while Coley is producing 15.3 ppg in league games.