ALBANY — With such a new crew, each game during the non-conference slate for the University at Albany men’s basketball team comes with it the chance — and the need — for the Great Danes to grow.
From UAlbany’s 8 p.m. opener Friday at Iona, the thing head coach Will Brown wants to learn about his team is simple.
Are these Great Danes tough enough for what’s to come?
“That’s the biggest thing I want to find out [Friday] night, is how tough we are,” Brown said after his team’s practice ended Thursday at SEFCU Arena, “because we beat them last year with straight toughness.”
UAlbany opened last season with a 69-67 win against Iona in which the Great Danes out-rebounded their opponent 47-27.
But that was a year ago — and it has been a long year for UAlbany since that night.
The program lost eight players to graduation or transfer from last season’s roster, including star Joe Cremo who transferred to Villanova. UAlbany’s current roster includes only one player — senior Devonte Campbell — who scored or grabbed a rebound in its 2017-18 season-opening win against Iona.
Brown, as expected, is cautious about what the Great Danes’ opener could bring. Iona is again expected to be one of the top teams in the MAAC, and the Gaels’ high-scoring, up-tempo approach represents “probably the worst matchup, stylistically, for a young team” like the one Brown brings into the 2018-19 season.
Those young guys, though, aren’t sweating the pressure of Friday’s opener all that much. During the offseason and preseason, there has been a steady confidence around the Great Danes that they can outperform outside expectations.
“At the end of the day, players make plays — and I know we can make plays,” UAlbany redshirt freshman Cam Healy said. “I’m confident in everybody here. We’re obviously inexperienced, so that’s the question mark for us, but we’re looking to prove people wrong about us.”
Healy projects as one of three likely redshirt freshman starters for the Great Danes. Fellow classmates — and Australians — Brent Hank and Adam Lulka appear to be locks to start, along with Campbell and junior Ahmad Clark. If Healy does not start, he will come off the bench behind senior Ray Miller.
“I’ve got to sleep on it and figure out if I want to go with the experience of Miller or if I want to throw the three puppies out there together,” Brown said. “I don’t know.”
Despite their inexperience, Lulka said the Great Danes understand they cannot allow themselves to get caught up trying to trade baskets with Iona.
“In the moment, it might be [tough to remember that], but Coach has done a pretty good job this week teaching us to make sure we don’t get caught up in their system, don’t get caught up going up and down,” Lulka said. “Slow it down. Run our system. That’s where our strength is.”
That Campbell, Clark and Lulka are locks to start is not a surprise. Hank, though, has come on strong during the preseason to earn his spot. Even before playing a college minute, the 6-foot-10, 265-pound Hank is someone Brown said can be trusted to anchor the Great Danes’ defense.
“When we break down defensively, he is the guy that’s rotated, that’s stepped up, that’s really clogged up the paint for us,” Brown said. “Right now, he’s on the floor because of how well he’s been playing defensively and on the glass.”
Overall, Brown said he expects to play nine players against Iona.
What will he get from them?
“Nothing really would surprise me [opening] night,” Brown said, “to be honest with you.”
Mullen makes debut
While the UAlbany men are playing at Iona, Colleen Mullen will debut as the head coach for the UAlbany women’s program at No. 22 South Florida.
That game’s tip-off is set Friday for 7 p.m.
Last season, the Great Danes went 24-8.