ALBANY — Too confident. A bit carefree. Overeager.
That’s how the University at Albany men’s basketball team approached its first meeting with Vermont this season.
It’s not how the Great Danes look at the rematch, which takes place 2 p.m. Saturday on the road a little more than a month after Vermont won 80-51 at SEFCU Arena.
This time around, there is a focus to the Great Danes that wasn’t there in early January. UAlbany redshirt freshman Cameron Healy said that difference is evident.
“We weren’t ready heading into conference play because we weren’t playing yet with a winning mentality,” said Healy, whose team has won its last three America East Conference games after losing its first five. “We were almost flipping a coin to see if we wanted to win a game or just be competitive in a game. Now, we’re doing everything we can to execute each game.”
In the days before UAlbany opened conference play with its lopsided loss against Vermont, Healy had presciently suggested the inexperienced Great Danes didn’t “know exactly what we’re getting into with Vermont.” This time, UAlbany gets the level that Vermont plays at, and knows how little room for error there is when playing the Catamounts.
“We’ve got to try to punch teams first. I don’t think we did that the majority of the season,” UAlbany freshman Antonio Rizzuto said. “We have been more of a first-half team [this season], but [we weren’t] finishing it. Punch first in the first half, punch first again in the second half.”
UAlbany (3-5, 8-15) heads into the second half of conference play in sixth place, while Vermont (8-1, 18-5) sits atop the standings. For the Catamounts, that means they are right where everyone thinks they’ll end up this season, but head coach John Becker said he expects the second trip through the America East to be tougher for his squad.
“There is so much newness in our league, as far as players go,” Becker said. “So it was a little bit of a feeling-out process for everyone, and I expect this second time through that things will get more competitive. . . . Teams are starting to play better as they figure themselves out.”
UAlbany is in that group of teams. After a disappointing opening three games of conference play, the Great Danes showed significant improvement in their last five. Still, there is another leap UAlbany needs to make to compete with Vermont — and UAlbany head coach Will Brown knows the Great Danes will need a number of role players to step up, especially on the offensive end, to give themselves a shot to win in Burlington.
“Vermont will not let Healy or [Ahmad] Clark beat them,” said Brown, referencing his team’s top scorers.
Working against UAlbany, too, is how few of the Great Danes have played meaningful minutes in a game at Vermont. The majority of the team’s playing rotation is making its first trip to Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium, a building which provides Vermont one of the best home-court advantages in the country.
“Our young guys and our new guys have no idea what they’re walking into and how different of a place it is to play,” Brown said. “They’ll find that out quickly, I’m sure.”
Against Vermont the first time this season, UAlbany quickly found itself down big. Off three consecutive wins, Healy said the Great Danes bring a better sense into the rematch of what it takes to compete in conference play than they had back in January.
“But we know we can’t just relax now,” Healy said. “We know what happened last time.”