ALBANY — In a season filled with lessons, a rebuilding UAlbany men’s basketball program learned its most important one from one of its top rivals.
That was when Vermont welcomed UAlbany head coach Will Brown’s young group last season into league play with an 80-51 thumping at SEFCU Arena, a contest that saw Vermont score 20 uninterrupted points in answer to an opening bucket from a UAlbany team featuring so many Great Danes playing in their first America East Conference game.
Now a sophomore starter, Malachi de Sousa didn’t play in that game. He watched from the bench, and doesn’t recall much of the night’s play by play — “I remember the jump ball, then I remember us being down 20” — but he does remember what the Great Danes learned from an experience that redshirt sophomore Cameron Healy labeled an “unacceptable” showing.
“We,” de Sousa said, “didn’t understand the intensity — and what it took — to win in conference play.”
UAlbany hosts Vermont at 7 p.m. Saturday at SEFCU Arena for its annual “Big Purple Growl,” and the Great Danes will enter that rivalry matchup in a much different position than from a year ago. While first-place Vermont (6-1, 16-6) remains as powerful as ever, UAlbany (5-2, 12-10) finds itself in a three-way tie for second a season after it allocated 70.9% of its minutes to players that hadn’t played in a game for the Great Danes prior to the 2018-19 season. That made for a trying season, but one that allowed UAlbany to position itself to bounce back for the 2019-20 campaign.
Last season’s rebuilding effort included ample playing time allotted to five college rookies in de Sousa, Healy, Brent Hank, Adam Lulka and Antonio Rizzuto — UAlbany’s starting five at the end of last season. While the Great Danes’ conference-opening blowout loss against Vermont was the start of a five-game losing streak, UAlbany closed its first losing season since 2009-10 with a 7-5 stretch.
In all, UAlbany finished 12-20 last season. For a program coming off four 20-win seasons, that hurt, but it was the kind of pain Brown could handle if it meant this season — and the ones that come after it — could be winning ones after UAlbany unexpectedly saw stars Joe Cremo and David Nichols leave the program following the 2017-18 season as graduate transfers.
Including Cremo and Nichols, UAlbany needed to replace eight scholarship players heading into the 2018-19 season, and Brown increasingly opted to embrace his program’s youth as last season rolled along.
“Will certainly made a commitment to play the young guys last year,” Vermont head coach John Becker said. “You’re starting to see some of the benefits of that this year. They look a lot more comfortable. The game is slowing down for those guys.
“And,” Becker added, “they’re still young. They’re building a really nice foundation.”
It’s one, too, that UAlbany has been able to add another piece to this season with freshman Trey Hutcheson, a perimeter player who has emerged as a starter. As he watched the 2018-19 UAlbany season unfold from afar and saw so many young players get a chance to gain experience, Hutcheson said he grew more excited to join the Great Danes because of the opportunity to mix in right away with a core of players he could compete alongside for multiple years.
“I was most focused on that we had this group of guys that I’d met on my visit, that I’d be with a lot,” Hutcheson said, “and that as we grew together, we could be really good.”
To this point in the season, UAlbany has fallen short of “really good,” but the program appears on the right track to get there within the next year. It’s possible, too, the Great Danes could be there already if not for the program experiencing one injury after another. UAlbany has only had five players appear in every game this season, and looks likely not to have Lulka (ankle) available vs. Vermont after he exited early from Wednesday’s win at UMBC.
“We’ve made great progress,” Brown said. “We just haven’t been healthy.”
That progress has shown in UAlbany’s ability to win tight games this season. In UAlbany’s last nine games decided by two possessions or fewer, the Great Danes are 7-2.
“I think just going through all of that last year, that’s paying off now,” said UAlbany senior Ahmad Clark, the team’s second-leading scorer and only regular starter who’s not a freshman or sophomore. “If we’re in a close game now, we know how to finish it out.”
“I think our guys are comfortable in those scenarios,” Brown said. “I wish we didn’t get into so many of those situations, but I think that’s the way our team is built this year.”
Is this season’s UAlbany team ready to compete with Vermont?
That’s difficult to ask of anyone in the America East, a conference that Becker’s Catamounts seem to rank No. 1 or No. 2 in every important team statistic. Since losing its conference opener 81-77 against Stony Brook, Vermont has allowed only one conference foe to score more than 57 points during a six-game winning streak in which it has won by an average of 17.5 points per game.
“In hindsight, as we get away from that [Stony Brook] loss, it was good for us,” Becker said. “It refocused us.”
“The biggest compliment I can pay to them is those kids — every single one of them — embrace their role and they don’t waver from their role,” Brown said of the Catamounts, who feature the America East’s top player in senior Anthony Lamb.
After its loss to Vermont to start conference play, UAlbany later lost 67-49 to the Catamounts in Burlington last year. That season sweep pushed UAlbany’s losing streak against Vermont to seven games, and the young Great Danes know they need a special effort this weekend to keep their program from falling for an eighth consecutive time to the Catamounts.
“We’ve got to bring our best game,” Healy said, “and put our best foot forward.”