University at Albany athletic director Lee McElroy called it a logistical nightmare, but he wouldn’t trade the opportunity to compete in the program’s fourth NCAA basketball tournament for anything.
Although it means an extremely fast turnaround, the 18-15 Great Danes head to Dayton, Ohio, early today to take on Mount Saint Mary’s (16-16) of the Northeast Conference in an NCAA play-in Tuesday. The winner gets top-seeded Florida on Thursday in Orlando, Fla.
“The team is leaving on a charter flight [this morning],” said McElroy, immediately after seeing UAlbany on the very first line of the Florida bracket during Sunday’s NCAA selection show. “They must pack for the whole week, because if they win Tuesday night’s game, they are flying directly to Orlando.”
McElroy said he wasn’t surprised by the news.
“They were telling me to be prepared for a quick turnaround, so I thought this would happen,” he said. “The thing I’m worried about is that it gives our players two less days to prepare, but we wouldn’t trade it. This also means we have more of a chance to win that first game.”
UAlbany head coach Will Brown, who has guided the Great Danes to all four NCAA tournament trips in his 13 years with the program, including the last two seasons in a row, put a positive spin on playing in what was always called one of two play-in games but is now labeled a first-round matchup.
“[Sunday] all I heard all day was that we were going to play Coastal Carolina in the play-in game in Dayton. Then, I heard we would be a 16th seed against Arizona in San Diego or against Florida in Orlando,” said Brown. “I’m not that surprised with what happened. But a true 16th seed has never beaten a No. 1, so the percentage of us beating a team from a similar conference is a lot better. I think both coaches feel that this is a winnable game.”
Brown was adamant that everything about playing in the NCAAs should be seen as strictly positive with no negative slants.
“Our guys are feeling good about themselves,” he said. “The play-in game is not an insult. They [the Danes] should be sky-high. Remember, the play-in game is really an NCAA first-round game. We have banners in our gym, and they say NCAA second round both times we played our first game. That means the play-ins are really first-rounders.”
Brown admitted, however, that playing a brand-new opponent without much time to prepare will be a challenge.
“The logistics are insane,” he said. “Mount Saint Mary’s has had the entire week off. There is a lack of familiarity with that program. But Jon Iati is in charge of the scouting report, and he’ll have something ready for me by [Sunday] night. We need to have tunnel vision and focus just on Mount Saint Mary’s. I want our guys to relax. It’s spring break, and I want them to enjoy this.”
None of the Great Danes seemed upset about their seeding.
“We’re just excited to be here,” said senior Gary Johnson. “We knew we were probably going to be in the play-in game, but it just doesn’t matter. This is fun. This is the best time of our lives.”
Luke Devlin, another senior, echoed his coach’s belief that the play-in game gives the Danes an opportunity to get the program’s first NCAA tournament win.
“It’s not a perfect scenario for us, but it does give us a chance to win a game,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic end of the season for me. I can’t think of anything better than to get at least one more game in my career.”
Sophomore Peter Hooley, the Danes’ leading scorer and the MVP of the America East Conference tournament, said UAlbany will be ready.
“The way we look at it is that we will be well prepared no matter what. We’ve learned in the last few games that we have to play all 40 minutes, or else we can’t win. We all pull for each other on this team. I’ve never been closer than I am to all the guys here, and that’s one of the reasons why we are such a good team.”
Junior Sam Rowley, who scored 18 points in the AE championship game victory over Stony Brook, was all smiles.
“We’re excited,” he said. “We would have liked to be an outright 16th seed, but the way we look at it is now we have a chance to get a win, and then play the best team in the country, which is Florida. Our confidence level is high.”